The Windows Format Dialog Has Remained the Same for 30 YearsThe Windows Format Dialog Has Remained the Same for 30 Years

Microsoft vet Dave Plummer says he wrote the Format tool 30 years ago as a temporary solution.

In 2021, Microsoft introduced Windows 11, marking another milestone in the evolution of its operating system. Despite the straightforward name, Windows 11 wasn’t the eleventh iteration of the OS. In fact, the Windows lineage traces back over approximately 20 releases, dating back to the mid-1980s. Throughout these iterations, there have been numerous changes, yet some elements have remained surprisingly consistent.

Dave Plummer, a veteran at Microsoft who worked there for about a decade starting in the early 1990s, played a crucial role in developing essential Windows components. These include the Task Manager, ZIP file support, and even the iconic Space Cadet Pinball game. Among these components was the format tool, a utility for formatting disks, which remains largely unchanged in Windows 11. Interestingly, Plummer didn’t anticipate this tool to ship when he initially designed it in the 1990s.

During Plummer’s tenure at Microsoft, the company underwent a significant transition from the Windows 95 platform to Windows NT. This shift laid the foundation for subsequent Windows releases over the past two decades, all of which have been built upon the NT framework. As part of this transition, Plummer was tasked with porting various features, including the Format tool, from Windows 95 to Windows NT in 1994. Despite being a seemingly minor task at the time, the Format tool has endured for more than three decades.

The Format tool’s persistence highlights the legacy of Windows and the longevity of its core functionalities. Even as Microsoft has introduced new features and user interfaces over the years, certain foundational elements have remained consistent. Plummer’s anecdote sheds light on the behind-the-scenes efforts involved in maintaining continuity across Windows versions while adapting to evolving technologies and user needs.

While modern iterations of Windows boast advanced features and capabilities, the enduring presence of the Format tool serves as a reminder of the platform’s heritage. It underscores the importance of reliability and familiarity in computing experiences, as users continue to rely on foundational tools for essential tasks like disk formatting. Overall, Plummer’s insights offer a glimpse into the enduring legacy of Windows and the ongoing evolution of Microsoft’s flagship operating system.

Plummer built the Format tool in just one morning. He started by listing down the functions it needed, like file system, label, cluster size, and compression. Then, he used Visual C++ 2.0 to create a simple vertical stack of these options, resulting in the familiar Format UI that we all know. Plummer had to decide on a limit for FAT volumes, and he chose 32GB somewhat randomly. Surprisingly, this limit stuck around along with the rest of the tool.

Plummer never thought that the version of Format he created that day would actually be used—it was meant to be a temporary solution until someone redesigned it. But the tool still does its job well, and Microsoft had bigger issues to deal with in those days. They started developing Windows Vista even before XP was released in 2001, and it wasn’t finished until 2006. Plummer advises developers to be careful about using “temporary” solutions because you never know when they might end up lasting for 30 years without much change.


By Tom Brokaw

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