Wing Commander III changed how the copy hotkey works in Windows 95

No, boss, I'm not just playing a game. I'm testing compatibility. Honest

It is almost 30 years since Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger was released. In addition to allowing users to kick some Kilrathi ass, the game also played an important role in testing Windows 95.

Microsoft veteran Raymond Chen told a story on his New Old Thing blog this week about how a bit of "testing" using Wing Commander III resulted in a fix being made to way the in-development Windows 95 talked to the underlying MS-DOS.

It was critical to ensure that Windows 95 compatibility was tested as much as possible before release. Back then, there was no army of helpful Windows Insiders. Instead, the replacement for Windows 3.x was hammered out in the traditional way – usually by staffers.

One enterprising manager took his truck to the local computer store, plucked a copy of every PC program on the shelves, and handed them out to the Windows 95 team. Each member could take up to two programs and was responsible for installing and running them like a normal end user. If anything didn't work, a bug report was filed.

The deal was that in return for taking responsibility for making sure that Windows 95 was compatible, you got to keep the software. Do a good job, and you could come back for more.

One of the programs tested was Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.

Readers of a certain vintage probably have fond memories of the game. It featured some impressive – for the time – video and, when viewed through rose-tinted glasses, the 3D visuals were neat, although this writer recalls it giving the CPU a particularly hard time.

It was also a workout for Windows 95. And, sure enough, a bug was filed. It was impossible to enable the cloaking device. The issue was that to activate the device (once it was earned in the game) it was required that the user hit Ctrl-C. It worked fine in MS-DOS but not when running Windows 95.

Chen explained: "Normally, Windows 95 realized that there was no active paste active and replayed the hotkey into the MS-DOS session. However, the replay of the hotkey was apparently too fast for this game to recognize, so it never activated the cloaking device."

The fix? Change how that bit of Windows 95 worked. A tweak was made so that the Ctrl-C hotkey handler was only installed by the operating system when a clipboard paste operation was active, and removed when the operation completed. "That way," said Chen, "when you hit it outside of a paste operation, the keys were visible to the game at human speeds, and this allowed it to engage the cloaking device."

So every time you reach for that particular key combination, cast your mind back almost 30 years to a dedicated tester putting in the hours on Wing Commander III to make sure that for their application, at least, Windows 95 would behave. A tough job, but someone had to do it. ®

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