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Are both names synonyms or should one prefer one name over the other on different platforms?

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up vote 87 down vote accepted

As seen in this question, they are not the same.

Authoritative answer given by Raymond Chen:

Windows 95 introduced Windows Explorer and along with it the term folder. What is the relationship between folders and directories?

Some people believe that Windows 95 renamed directories to folders, but it's actually more than that.

Windows Explorer lets you view folders, which are containers in the shell namespace. Directories are one type of folder, namely, folders which correspond to file system locations. There are other types of folders, such as Control Panel or Network Neighborhood or Printers. These other types of folders represent objects in the shell namespace which do not correspond to files. In common usage, the term virtual folder has been applied to refer to folders which are not directories. In other words, we have this Euler diagram:

enter image description here (Virtual folders = Folders − Directories)

In general, code which manipulates the shell namespace should operate on folders and items, not directories and files, so as not to tie themselves to a particular storage medium. For example, code which limits itself to files won't be able to navigate into a Zip file, since the contents of a Zip file are exposed in the form of a virtual folder.

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This is the better answer. Yay for Raymond Chen. – Kev Feb 18 '11 at 9:40
Also see: – XP1 Jan 10 '12 at 17:54
Are you able to incorporate Virtual Folders into that diagram? maybe like – barlop May 15 '15 at 16:39

As a reference to physical locations on the hard drive they are synonyms.

Windows tends to use "Folder".

*nix tends to use "Directory".

On Windows you have virtual folders (as mentioned in malfruct's answer) which are represented as directories but can be actually stored as files (zip files for example).

However, to the end user this distinction doesn't usually matter.

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Virtual folders can reach beyond the files concept. For example Control Panel or libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos) or Devices and Printers – they are not "actually stored as files", although their content is sometimes (not always) constructed using files and referring to them. – miroxlav Jul 1 '15 at 13:18

For GUI platforms, "Folder" name is recommended where as for command line environment, "Directory" name is suited.

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Is recommended, by whom? – KajMagnus Jul 21 '13 at 8:16
Citation needed – AtomHeartFather Nov 28 '15 at 22:59

What humanfly said, with the additional note that some programs use "Folder" but NEVER directory, i.e. in email programs like Outlook. You never have "subdirectories" but you often have "subfolders".

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Does Outlook really work with file system directories? Or does it offer just virtual e-mail folders? – Mike L. Jul 30 '10 at 6:58
No, it's only folders. I was making a point that the terminology is NOT always interchangeable. You didn't specify for just system tree structure in your question. – JNK Jul 30 '10 at 10:10
The term subdirectory does exist, and means much the same as subfolder in this context. – Phoshi Jul 31 '10 at 14:34

@mafu quotes Raymond Chen as writing:

Windows 95 introduced Windows Explorer and along with it the term folder.

In fact, Microsoft Windows 95 borrowed many UI design ideas from Apple. And Apple in turn borrowed them from Xerox. Both the name "folder" and the visual metaphor of folders were part of the Xerox Star office environment in 19821.

1 - In 1985, I used a DLion workstation running Xerox software to write my PhD thesis ... if you want a source for that fact.

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Actually, in this MSDN page, you can read :

In Windows, the terms "directory" and "folder" are used interchangeably. Most documentation and user interface text uses the term "folder," but the .NET Framework class library uses the term "directory."

So I think that both are fine. I tend to use "folder" as it's shorter and I'm lazy.

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