Windows has undergone some major cosmetic changes over the last decade, but Microsoft is committed to backward compatibility like no other software maker. In fact, the original Windows File Manager still works just fine on Windows 10 by way of some newly open sourced code. If you want to relive file management 90s style, now’s your chance.
Consumers may be keen to buy flashy MacBooks and inexpensive Chromebooks, but Windows is still the de facto standard for business and governments all over the world. Many of them are tied to ancient and inefficient Windows software suites, so Microsoft is careful not to break backward compatibility. Programs from decades ago can still work, including Microsoft’s first file manager.
With the release of Windows 3.0, Microsoft fully embraced the graphical user interface by allowing users to manage files without diving into DOS command lines. The Windows File Manager was a precursor to Windows Explorer with all the basic file manager features. It could open directories, delete, copy, and move files.
The source code was pulled from Windows NT 4.0 in 2007 by long-time Microsoft employee Craig Wittenberg. He’s managed the code ever since, and now it has officially launched as open source under the MIT license. You can get it on GitHub right now if you’re curious. The code requires a few small modifications to run on Windows 10 in 32-bit mode, but there are already forks that compile in 64-bit mode without issue.
Just because it runs doesn’t mean you’ll want to use it, though. The experience is still recognizable as a file explorer in this day and age, but it’s ugly, and interactions are profoundly clunky by modern standards. There’s almost no implementation of right-click context menus, and some of the most common keyboard shortcuts don’t work. The icons are incredibly low-resolution as well.
Whereas Windows Explorer and other file managers let you array windows across your desktop, the original File Manager is a single window that contains other smaller windows for browsing your files. This was known as a Multiple Document Interface (MDI), which was a popular way to cope with limited desktop space back in the 90s.
Under the MIT license, you can download, modify, and use the Windows File Manager almost however you want. It can even be integrated into proprietary software as long as it also carries the MIT license. At this point, the value is mostly just nostalgia, which is why Microsoft opened it up.