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Ok, this has bugged me for some time now. To reproduce:

  1. Open Windows explorer.
  2. Press Alt+D to set focus to the navigation bar.
  3. Begin typing a (valid) path, i.e., "\Progr".
  4. Press TAB and "Program Files" is selected as the best match and populated into the nav bar.
  5. Press Enter (\Program Files is opened in the folder pane).
  6. Begin typing the name of a folder and it will be selected in the folder pane (i.e., incremental search. In XP you had to TAB three times to get there, Windows 7 places focus there automatically. Very nice).

Now, open a program, let's say, Excel.

  1. Press Ctrl+O to open the Open File Dialog.
  2. Press Alt+D to set focus to the nav bar.
  3. Begin typing a (valid) path, i.e., "\Progr".
  4. Press TAB and focus is now set to the search text area to the right. The nav bar is reset to its last value.

Why is this? This is terribly annoying and prevents me from quickly navigating to a directory via the keyboard.

Also, if you press the Down arrow key instead of Tab to select the suggested folder path and then press Enter, focus is not set to the folder pane as it is in explorer. If you begin typing to select a directory the nav bar still has focus and you have to press TAB four times to set focus to the folder pane.

This annoys me to no end as I use the keyboard almost exclusively to perform actions in Windows. Does anyone around here have any insight into why this behavior is inconsistent between Explorer and file dialogs in Windows?

Raymond Chen, if you're here, I could sure use your input.

share|improve this question
You already realized yourself that there are 2 individual applications in play here. You're basically asking why 2 different applications don't behave the same way. Why should they? Yes, they look similar and provide similar tasks, but they're still 2 separate programs. – Oliver Salzburg May 7 '12 at 18:18
@OliverSalzburg: That's the sort of response I would expect from an engineer who knows little about how to build a system that solves problems for users. I'm an engineer too, but I don't care that the OpenfileDialog and Explorer share two different implementations. They perform similar tasks and are part of the same OS, so I expect the behave consistently. A response such as yours tells me only that the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing, but I assume you don't actually have any real insight on this (do you work for Microsoft?). – Ed S. May 7 '12 at 18:20
-1,, why would 2 different teams ever make 2 thinks differently? how is this question usefull for anybody? feel free to report a bug or use a workaround or retag your question to "history of programming" or "efficient communication in a company" – Aprillion May 13 '12 at 11:58
@deathApril: Because sometimes there is a reason for doing things differently, I was just curious if anyone had some insight. I know some MS devs are present on SO, but obviously this question doesn't fit there. – Ed S. May 13 '12 at 17:55


Let's first establish that using Tab generally cycles through elements in a Windows dialog.

If we select the breadcrumb bar in either the Open common file dialog or Windows Explorer and press Tab, the focus will be moved to the neighboring search/filter box.

When typing into the breadcrumb bar, a popup list is opened. This is also identical in both instances:
enter image description here


The problem is what happens if you press Tab now.

Windows Explorer will focus the list, as shown here:
enter image description here
But the common dialog will move the focus to the Search box.


Let's first note that press the Down key would move the focus to the list in both cases. But you will find this little helpful (as you already noted).

Both the common dialog and Windows Explorer seem to use the same breadcrumb control. So why do they behave differently?

When I select an entry in the auto-completion suggestion list and press Enter, the breadcrumb bar will send a windows message to tell the rest of the application about it.

The shell team decided to only switch the file listing in the common dialog to the newly selected path when they receive that message.
The Explorer team decided to additionally place focus in the file listing.

Why is that?

I don't know. I only know if you press Alt+N in the common dialog, it will focus the File name box, which has the same auto-completion.

After using that to the extend you like, you can press Shift+Tab to focus the file list. Now you're focused on the file listing and can use it the way you're used to.

If you just can't live with that, you'll have to contact Microsoft support about it and they might actually escalate it to a bug report, who knows. But I doubt they would change such core behavior in a released version of Windows no matter how wrong it is (and if you follow Raymond Chen's blog, you know that to be true).

share|improve this answer
So, I do appreciate the time you spent in putting this together, but as you know, it does not answer my question. I understand the Windows message queue and that the tab order is different. I understand exactly how a Windows UI works under the covers. My question is why was this decision made (or overlooked), which will only be answerable by someone with insight into the way things work at MS (Raymond Chen, looking at you again, I know you're on SO...). Thanks for the response though, just hoping someone around here has some insight into the decision making process. – Ed S. May 7 '12 at 19:38
@EdS.: At the end of 2012 the suggestions from the Suggestion Box 4 should be answered. Maybe Raymond starts another round and you could enter this question. From experience I know that you have to be really fast to get your question in before it's closed. So be quick about it ;) Otherwise, let's hope for an authoritative answer on this site. – Oliver Salzburg May 7 '12 at 19:42
Yeah, I went there first. He is almost through them, I'm just waiting for it to open up. – Ed S. May 7 '12 at 19:52

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