Windows Format dialog waited decades for UI revamp that never came

'Temporary' isn't always

Windows has a built-in reminder of the perils of temporary solutions thanks to the 30-year-old porting efforts of former Microsoft engineer Dave Plummer.

Plummer is well known for beloved and not-so-beloved elements of Microsoft's flagship operating system. While some of his projects, such as the Windows Task Manager, have received a fresh lick of paint over the years, others have not.

A case in point is the Format dialog, one of those bits of Windows that looks decidedly retro when compared to the shiny new world of Windows 11, yet is still used in the latest installations of the operating system.

In a post on X, Plummer set the wayback machine to a rainy Thursday in late 1994. "We were porting the bajillion lines of code from the Windows95 user interface over to NT, and Format was just one of those areas where WindowsNT was different enough from Windows95 that we had to come up with some custom UI," he wrote.

"I got out a piece of paper and wrote down all the options and choices you could make with respect to formatting a disk, like filesystem, label, cluster size, compression, encryption, and so on.

"Then I busted out VC++2.0 and used the Resource Editor to lay out a simple vertical stack of all the choices you had to make, in the approximate order you had to make. It wasn't elegant, but it would do until the elegant UI arrived."

Thirty years on, and we're still waiting for that "elegant UI."

While Windows has evolved over the years, the Format dialog persists in Windows 11. It is a reminder of when Plummer was elbow-deep in the operating system's internals. Sure, it might feature some creative use of colons in its captions, yet it also speaks of simpler times.

It is also a warning from the past of the dangers of quickly putting together a temporary solution to a problem. The anticipated permanent fix might never arrive, and decisions taken decades ago could leave users born after the event scratching their heads.

In Plummer's case, he also had to decide how much "cluster slack" would be too much, which wound up constraining the format size of a FAT volume to 32 GB.

He said: "That limit was also an arbitrary choice that morning, and one that has stuck with us as a permanent side effect.

"So remember... there are no 'temporary' checkins!" ®

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