Programming Windows: Clipboard and DDE (Premium)

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were originally derided by the tech elite, who referred to users of these environments as WIMPs, a reference to the term “windows, icons, menus, pointer” that was then considered synonymous with GUI. The theory was that one needed to master arcane command lines to truly understood how computers worked.

That view was always wrong. And it betrayed a curious lack of insight from a group of self-described experts that should have known better: GUIs didn’t just hide the complexity of the underlying computer systems while making more approachable to a wider audience. They also provided advanced system-wide functionality that abstracted hardware and standardized user interface elements, making it easier for developers to create consistent applications more easily.

Key among this system-level functionality was the notion of cross-application communication and data sharing.

Consider, briefly, the MS-DOS world, where a WordPerfect user might want to insert some written text into a VisiCalc spreadsheet. In this environment, it was essentially impossible to run both applications simultaneously, and task-switching between the two was tedious and time-consuming. Worse, the developers of one or both applications would need to have created some way to export (from WordPerfect) or import (into VisiCalc) the data; that solution would have to be hand-tailored for the other application, too; if the user wanted to use a different word processor or spreadsheet, the solution would have to support that product explicitly as well. (If formatting wasn’t an issue, the user would have to figure out a way to export and then import the data in a plain text format.)

Application developers worked around this limitation in interesting ways. Lotus 1-2-3 is gone forever, but I assume most readers understand that it was the most popular spreadsheet application in the 1980s and early 1990s. What many probably don’t remember, however, is that the product’s name isn’t just about numbers, it’s a reference to the fact that this product combined three previously separate applications---a spreadsheet, a database, and a graphical chart maker---into one. It was a very successful attempt at bypassing the problem noted above, since you could move data between these three integrated modules easily. (At a technical level because it was all implemented as a single MS-DOS application.)

But as an MS-DOS application, Lotus 1-2-3 was as confined by the limitations of the platform as any other application. Its charting capability, for example, required Lotus to manually support individual graphics cards with internally-created drivers, so the list of these drivers---and the number of install disks they required---increased over time as the PC market evolved and exploded in size. (WordPerfect had an even worse problem with printer drivers, which it had to likewise manually create to bridge the gap between its application and the ex...

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