Friday, March 26, 2010

Opening files still broken

Last year, I wrote about broken behavior in Windows Vista when trying to open multiple Excel files: if you selected a group of Excel files, sometimes you could right-click and "Open" then. But sometimes you couldn't.

The problem was that Vista would only let you "Open" multiple files at once if all the files had the same extension. For example, if you selected just a group of "DOC" (Word 97-2003) files, Vista would let you right-click and "Open" then. But if you selected a few "DOC" files and some "DOCX" (Word 2007) files, Vista panicked and wouldn't let you "Open" them.

I can report that this broken behavior is fixed in Windows 7. Sort of. I can now select several different file types (say, DOC and DOCX) and if I right-click, Windows 7 gives me an option to "Open" them. Just like you'd expect. Also works for DOC, DOCX, and ODT (probably because they are all handled through Word 2007.)

But it's still kind of broken in Windows 7. And in a fairly major, obvious way. Let's say I select a bunch of files that I need to review, like to write a single strategy document. I might highlight 3 DOC files, a DOCX file, and a PDF file. (This isn't an imaginary example - I'm trying to do this now.) I can't "Open" them - when I right-click, there's no menu option to "Open" them.

Oh wait, Windows Explorer put a little "Open" button in the toolbar when I selected those 5 files. Let's click that. Only the first file opens.

To me, this is very broken behavior. Doesn't anyone else need to open multiple files at once? How am I the first to find this bug?

To compare: in Linux, you can always select multiple files of different types (DOC, XLS, PDF, ...) and "Open" them. Linux is smart enough to understand that each file type has a different associated application, and calls each program to open the files. It's easy.


  1. Hmm, interesting.

    Oh wait, Windows Explorer put a little "Open" button in the toolbar when I selected those 5 files. Let's click that. Only the first file opens.

    This is broken, independent of how multiple select/open should work. If it otherwise behaved the way you suggest it should, I definitely agree here.

    There are a number of aspects about this that confuse me (in terms of what Windows is doing). One is that I think I remember that in past versions of Windows you could select multiple files and hit 'enter' and they would all open. This doesn't work in Win7 for me either, and your earlier test was with Vista. Anyone have an XP box handy they can try this on?

    It almost looks like that it's showing the intersection of the actions that are possible (but it isn't; more in a sec), not based on the name, but on the action. If I select multiple text files for instance, I get the same menu options as if I pick one individually, except that "open with" is gone. This is also consistent with being able to open multiple files with the same extension.

    If I select a PDF file and a TXT file however, the first option I get is my 7-zip drop-down. Both of these files have a "Open" action, but the actual action differs.

    But this theory gets shot to pieces. I have a weird additional action for text files: "Convert to Starcraft Trigger Data." (Don't ask. I probably should clean that up actually, but I just noticed it now so it's not like it's causing any problems.) This is in addition to 'open', 'edit' (WTF is edit vs. print? maybe other weirdness specific to my system), 'print', 'open with', and '7-zip'. PDFs do not have this action; they only have 'open', '7-zip', and 'open with' above the first separator. Yet if I select a TXT and a PDF file together, if I select the TXT file last, then "convert to starcraft trigger" shows up as an action in the right-click menu.

    Again, pretty clearly broken behavior no matter what you think should happen with multiple files. The order of selection shouldn't matter in that manner, at least IMO.

  2. (And again, I wrote too much for one post. Also, there's an incomplete thought.)

    This is broken, independent of how multiple select/open should work. If it otherwise behaved the way you suggest it should, I definitely agree here.

    I meant to continue with "If it otherwise behaved the way it currently does, it's still broken."

    One final thought is a possible reason that this might be a deliberate decision to not open everything. I'm pretty sure in the past that I've accidentally opened several documents at once that I didn't mean to. (This is part of why I think that the behavior you want was part of XP.) In other words, unless I'm totally misremembering, I've opened more than one type of file at once by accident far more than I want to open more than one type of file at once on purpose. (A possible exception is things like your XLS vs XLSX example where the files are "logically" the same type but actually different; even then, I think I rarely open multiple files at once directly from Explorer. I'll have to pay more attention to what I'm doing in this respect in the future.)

    It's possible that the usability testing they did showed that my experience is typical, and that having the behavior you want screwed people up more often than they used it deliberately. I would argue that, if the decision was made based on such evidence, it was a good decision.

    That said... some of the other aspects that show up in this area suggest that maybe this particular behavior didn't get as much usability testing as that possibility gives them credit for. :-)

  3. Hmm, looks like I might be full of it: XP behaves roughly the same as Win7. Select multiple files of the same type and the open option will be there and open everything. Select multiple files of different types and it may not be. Hit enter when multiple files of different types are selected and only one will open (like clicking the open button in the Vista/Win7 Explorer).

    Do some other experiments and... weirder things happen.

  4. looks like jh uncovered a pretty serious bug, then!

  5. I'll agree it's a usability bug, but "pretty serious"? Really? What would you say is a minor bug if this is "pretty serious"?

    Like personally, I feel very strongly that any program that deals with text files and does not properly handle both LF and CRLF line endings to be buggy. (Windows Notepad, all the Unix shells, and, IIRC, Flex and Bison are my biggest complaints.) But in the grand scheme of things, I'd call that a moderate bug at worst, and I personally would much rather those line endings be fixed than for MS to fix this particular multiple-file-opening thing.

  6. I think the reason nobody else has noticed it is that nobody else expects it to work this way (the right way.)

    * Most Windows users have only ever really used Windows so they don't know any better.
    * Mac OS users are, unfortunately, not all used to the right-click concept, so we tend to double-click our selection to open it rather than right-click it and look for an 'open' option. (Mac OS will open whatever applications are set as default for all selected files when a multi-selection is double-clicked or 'open' is selected from the right-click menu or command-o is pressed.)
    * Most Linux users wouldn't be caught dead using Windows, so they've never had the opportunity to discover the problem or complain about it.

    What happens if you open the application first and then multi-select in the 'open...' dialogue box?

  7. And I should have mentioned, double-clicking a multi-selection in Windows fails big time. Whatever the mouse was over when you double-clicked is all that opens.

  8. @Ben Zvan: An interesting question, so I just tried it. Works about like you'd expect - dependent on the application. The application assumes you are trying to open its own files.

    If I go into Word and do an "Open" dialog, and select a DOC and an ODT file, Word opens both files at once.

    If I instead select a DOC file and a PDF file, Word opens the DOC file and tries to import the PDF file (prompts for import.)

    If I select a DOC file, an ODT file, and an XLS file - Word opens the DOC and ODT files, and prompts to import the XLS file into Word.

    With that last one goes any claim of Office interoperability. I'd expect that Word would take a "Microsoft Office suite" view, and automatically launch Excel when you tried to "Open" an XLS file.

  9. Of course, I've covered that behavior before:

    I'm working from home today, writing a strategy document. My document pulls from several sources, and at one point I realized I needed to copy/paste some data from a spreadsheet I'd created earlier. So from Word, I tried to open the Excel document. That doesn't work. Word, not recognizing that this is an Excel spreadsheet that should be opened in Excel, tries to import the file as a document. In short, it's doing the wrong thing.


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