Ex-Microsoft maverick takes us on a trip through vintage Task Manager code

Plus: Have you updated to the latest version of Bloated Fetal Sacs?

Former Microsoft engineer Dave Plummer has taken YouTube viewers deep into the source code for Windows Task Manager while debunking a distressing Icelandic sobriquet for Microsoft's flagship operating system.

Plummer has already admitted to writing the stone-cold killer of processes for early versions of Windows. Still, a wander through the source code is an educational delight for engineers curious about how the internals of Windows worked all those years ago.

The Windows Task Manager, as originally written by Plummer, first turned up in Windows NT 4.0 as the last century drew to a close. He had written it as a shareware app but was persuaded to donate it to the Windows project, thus earning the gratitude of users worldwide.

The source code shown off by Plummer on YouTube dates back to 2003 and the era of Windows XP.

Plummer told The Register: "It's honestly a rock-solid implementation of an older approach to coding. I'm proud of my younger self for a job well done, but there's so much I clearly didn't know yet, and it shows!"

It's all refreshingly straightforward – the code in Plummer's possession is a simple collection of files. There are no libraries, no folder structure, just several source and header files, and, of course, image resources. The only dependency is the Windows SDK itself.

One interesting nugget of information was Task Manager set to be of the high priority class, meaning that it should still run even if the rest of Windows was having troubles. Plummer believes that the current iteration of the application is not as aggressive, so it might not always appear quite so rapidly on a bogged-down system.

Users of the modern-day version as shipped with Windows 11 might well yearn for the days when a cruder interface would reliably turn up upon request and kill off errant processes in a far more reliable fashion.

As for why the priority might have been changed, Plummer said: "I imagine having it sitting around in the background at high priority may have been… fractionally hard on some benchmarks or made a material impact in some way to performance…"

Other statistics to make a modern user weep include Plummer's comment that Task Manager only weighed in at approximately 85 kilobytes when fully compiled. Still obscenely chunky for engineers who back then counted every byte, but positively slimline compared to what passes for lightweight components in Windows nowadays.

Plummer told us: "Today I would use a lot more of the C++ language itself and the STL library, but the approach I did take was valid for the day because it kept it both robust and small (85K or so)."

Plummer's walkthrough is an enjoyable way to kill a half hour for anyone who has had to work with the internals of Windows or is just curious about how it hung together. We'd have to recommend it, even if he has yet to get on to how those graphs were drawn or the code behind the process page.

But what about the Icelandic thing?

The examination of Task Manager source was very much an antidote to last week's anecdote, where Plummer addressed a persistent semi-myth concerning Windows, Iceland, and bloated fetal sacs.

While "bloat" and "Windows" aren't uncommon bedfellows, the story goes that during localization for Iceland, Microsoft's flagship OS acquired a name that, when literally translated, was "bloated fetal sacs."

The unfortunate name was down to the Icelandic desire to use existing words rather than import foreign ones. Plummer said: "In medieval times, a window was made by stretching the bloated fetal sac of a sheep over a frame and letting it dry – it would slowly turn translucent. And so, in Iceland, Microsoft Windows became Microsoft Bloated Fetal Sacs."

Except... not quite, according to Plummer. He went on to explain that the word to denote a thin layer or membrane resonated with the idea of an electronic display to speakers of the language.

"It's a subtle transformation capturing the essence of linguistic evolution, so it's actually the monitor and not the windows on the monitor that inherited the bloated sac term."

The point is that localization is challenging and requires both local context and a deep understanding of the application.

So every time a howler of a translation turns up in your daily life, consider that things could always be worse. ®

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