Tales from the Trailing Edge

What Is the Windows Shell?

Gregg Eshelman - 2001.10.16

Windows is divided into two main programs, the Kernel and the Shell. In a standard Windows 9x system the kernel is WIN.COM and the shell is EXPLORER.EXE. During startup, win.com looks in the folder where Windows is installed for the file SYSTEM.INI. Near the beginning of system.ini is the line shell=Explorer.exe. (For Windows 3.x the Kernel is WIN.COM but the Shell is PROGMAN.EXE, thus its system.ini has the line shell=progman.exe.)

Now that you know what the shell is, you might be wondering if it can be changed. The answer is yes. All you need to do is change explorer.exe or progman.exe to another program. You can even switch the shell on Windows 9x from Explorer to Program Manager this way. (Though you really wouldn't want to, since the way Win 9x runs it is even worse than it was in Windows for Workgroups 3.11.)

You can make almost any program the shell. Some programs don't work at all as the shell, and with most programs other than Explorer, Progman, or Winfile you won't be able to start any other programs. Whichever program is the shell must always be running. Exiting the shell shuts down Windows.

Why would you ever want to change the shell? If you want to restrict a user to a single application, then changing the shell to that application is a sure fire way to do it - unless the user also knows this trick.

Some people do it to eke every bit of speed possible out of some program that is the only thing a PC is ever used for. Explorer would just be sitting there using CPU time idling.

Another use that has come about recently is setting up a PC laptop with Windows 95 or 98 and then switching the shell to the popular freeware 68k Macintosh emulator Basilisk II. It certainly draws attention to have a Dell or IBM "boot" Mac OS 8.1.

You can find all sorts of Windows Shell information at http://www.desktopian.org/

WARNING! It is highly recommended that you know how to find your way around a directory tree in DOS, know where system.ini is and how to use the DOS EDIT program before you try things like changing the Windows Shell. I and Low End PC are not responsable if you try this and can't figure out how to change things back.LEPC

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