Windows has lacked Virtual desktop since it's origin (although Windows 1.0 had a tiling window manager :), and has required always the use of a third party application or a PowerToy (Windows XP+).

Does anyone know why this is the case? Do people in Redmond think it's bad? Is it too hard for new users to grasp the idea? Any other explanation?

  • please tag as subjective, there's not going to be a concrete answer to this
    – arathorn
    Jul 21, 2009 at 21:35
  • unless there is a windows project manager around here :)
    – voyager
    Jul 21, 2009 at 21:35
  • my problem is that i could never remember to use more than one desktop and if i did i was afraid that i would forget about the apps i put on the other ones. Multiple monitors are nice though.
    – RCIX
    Jul 22, 2009 at 9:21

9 Answers 9


Windows had Virtual Desktop support in its API since at least Windows NT 41. There were multiple 3rd-party programs that made use of it, although some resorted to hiding/showing windows and keeping track of the desktops themselves.

As for why MS never included such a tool, I can only speculate, but is that something you'd sell the average customer and he'd be like "Oh gosh, I really can use this"? Heck, even I as a pretty computer-literate user never got used to multiple desktops. I simply doubt it'd be a feature the majority of users would want and/or use.

Also, not including such a tool should definitely cut down on the "Where are my windows gone?" questions the support people have to answer.

1 I am only talking about the NT line of operating systems, as the API on Win 9x was very different and much more limited.

  • 1
    As the OP mentions, there's a Microsoft powertoy to enable it on XP. From memory, it didn't work very well. If an app on another desktop grabbed focus, the app would jump onto the desktop you were using. The taskbar covered all running applications, and it would likewise pull apps across desktops, instead of switching you to the relevant desktop.
    – John Fouhy
    Jul 21, 2009 at 22:45
  • Well, there are at least two approaches to all this: (1) hide windows from other desktops, toggle them when switching (which is probably what that Powertoy did and it's very easy to get wrong. (2) use the native desktops functionality which is more robust but then you don't have the option of moving windows across desktops, in Vista only the first desktop has Aero, etc. It comes with all kinds of limitations but also probably with less bugs of all other kinds :)
    – Joey
    Jul 22, 2009 at 1:18

As someone pointed out, the API to support this feature has been around since the days of WIndows NT.

However, Microsoft did implement virtual desktops themselves, since at least the launch of Windows XP. It's an optional Windows XP Powertoy download called Virtual Desktop Manager.

You can still download it at the Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP website.

Direct download link : Deskman.exe

Windows Virtual Desktop Manager

Nonetheless, Microsoft never promoted it and very few people know about it until this day. I've used it for a couple of years when I was using Windows XP and it was pretty good (and free too).

Update (since the questions has changed): Last year, the Microsoft Sysinternals team released Desktops 1.0 which will supersede Virtual Desktop Manager (MSVDM): Microsoft releases Desktops, new virtual desktop manager

Short of getting hold a Windows program manager to tell us the rationale, I guess we can infer from the release of MSVDM as a Powertoy and now Desktops as a Sysinternals tool that Microsoft thinks that virtual desktops are only of interest to, or suitable for highly technical users. Microsoft describes its Sysintersnals as targeting the "IT Pro or a developer".

Another Update (As Of 2015) In 2015, Microsoft released Windows 10 and if you type [Win]+[Tab], it will bring up an [Alt]+[Tab] like menu, but at the bottom-right of the screen, it says "New Desktop", and if you click it, a new desktop will open, but you can break it by adding too many Virtual Desktops. (It depends on your CPU[Most likely 150])

  • Had been using it in 2003, but then, that felt like alt-tabbing desktops instead of windows. Nothing beats multiple monitors. Enough said.
    – icelava
    Jul 22, 2009 at 1:51
  • 1
    Agreed, it's not perfect. But it does proof that Microsoft did implement this feature but only made it available and known to expert users.
    – GeneQ
    Jul 22, 2009 at 1:54
  • I still consider virtual desktops to be somewhat of an expert feature anyway. It's easy to get confused :)
    – Joey
    Jul 22, 2009 at 7:25
  • Is there a similar tool by microsoft for win7 ? Jan 16, 2012 at 9:40

I imagine it was simply a case of:

  • Users not requiring it in most cases
  • Those that do could do so with 3rd party software. Some of which Microsoft sold (don't want to undercut their own products now)
  • Given the above they probably judged it a waste of development resources.

I think it's one of those things that are hard to get exactly right.

First of all, most users won't have a need for it at all, so they'll just never use it. This is probably the main reason why MS never made an effort here.

For the remaining users, you need to be very careful in order to make them really trust the mechanism. All virtual desktop tools I have used on windows have some issue that breaks the trust. Windows suddenly moving to other desktops or just disappearing, notifications not appearing, delays in drawing the taskbar, etc.

On the mac there is a sliding animation when you move between desktops so that you have a feeling of moving in physical space. This is not just a visual effect, it speaks to the brain in a fundamental way that makes it easier to remember (more like "feel") where you and your different windows are.

You also have an easy way to see all desktops and move windows between them, and there are just no unexpected strange issues with the whole thing. No strange pauses, no weird re-draws of windows, no stutters or stops. It doesn't feel like a "hack", and I think this is essential in order to make people use it.


here's the real kicker: Microsofts virtual desktop pattent

yes they where the only OS with out this feature and thus they applied for a patent on it.


The standard answer for features that don't exist is that it takes a lot of effort to create them, they don't just appear in the OS for free. By effort I mean both time & money for the development & support of the said feature.

At the same time, there are probably a lot of other features that people might want at some point - since neither money or time are infinite you can only get some of the features and not others. I guess 'virtual desktops' keeps loosing the priority game for each OS version.

  • 1
    But the core functionality is already there since NT and they have freeware that brings this exact functionality to the user.
    – voyager
    Jul 21, 2009 at 22:16
  • But it's unsupported freeware - the powertoys were explicitly "You're on your own if you use these", so it didn't have to have multi-lingual docs, it wasn't fully tested (see other answers about it's buggy nature), etc. Jul 22, 2009 at 2:16
  • Microsoft doesn't lack neither time nor money.
    – hasen
    Jul 22, 2009 at 3:12
  • @hasen j: Well, I guess if you have 2 bucks & half an hour you're also not lacking time or money. The point was that they probably can find better uses for the ones they have than supporting VDs.
    – kokos
    Jul 22, 2009 at 9:17

Not everyone appreciates Virtual desktops and even though there are applications that replicate the behaviour on Windows machines there seems to be very few that actually uses something like it. Even while I was on Linux I tried it out for a while but without multiple monitors to keep the desktops on I didn't really see the point, myself. So my answer is that the users they tested it on didn't find it useful so they didn't include it, simple as that.


Isn't the whole point of Windows to have multiple "Windows" open at the same time?

The only time this really get's annoying having to many Windows open, is when you can't Alt + Tab straight to your music player or you have to skim through 20 Internet Explorer pages (back in IE6) to get somewhere without touching the mouse.

I think that if I would then spread my "work" around multiple desktops, it would still be a nightmare since there never was a great solution for quick switching if you have too much of the same open (lots of browser tabs and lots of Word docs for instance).

Plus I mostly keep my desktop clean, so no need for more desktop space.

Ah well, we probably all got used to not having it too much...


As stated above it's existed in XP as a powertoy (i.e. targeted at pro users) since early this decade.

Predating that, I distinctly recall using a virtual desktop tool in Windows 9.x (I think it was part of the 95 or 98 "plus" pack) for a good few years in the 90s.

So is the answer actually "it didn't"?

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