Originally created 04/18/99

Why shortcuts are a Windows necessity

Explaining shortcuts in Windows 98 is a lot easier than it used to be. All you have to do is watch the sci-fi television program "Star Trek: Deep Space 9."

"DS9" features a wormhole guarded by a classy retro-punk space station. Fly your shuttlecraft into the wormhole, and you pop out in some wacky, dangerous, unexplored part of the universe a couple of billion light-years away. You don't waste any time or even need to fire up your dilithium crystal warp drive.

So that's it. Shortcuts are like wormholes in your computer. They link the safe, civilized areas of your computer -- primarily the Desktop and Start menu -- with all those scary .dll infested subdirectories, where the slightest deletion can mean instant doom for your PC. No need to point and click a half-dozen times to get to the original.

Last week we looked at some of the naturally occurring wormholes in Windows, including the Desktop itself, which is hyperlinked to a folder in the C:/Windows directory. There are others we didn't get into, including the Start menu, which is really a collection of wormholes that are installed automatically.

This week, we're going to show you how to build your own, and why you might want to do so.

We'll begin with a little reverse engineering of the Start menu. Right-click on it and select the Open option. This gets you to the contents of the menu, which is contained in a regular folder window. There should be a folder inside called "Programs." Open it up.

There are two types of icons in the window. First, you see stuff that looks like folders. Old Windows 3.1 fans will notice that the little dotted things on top of the folder look a lot like the old icon for program groups, a horrible piece of ancient history we won't get into today. Suffice to say that when you install a program, one of the things the installer usually does is a) create a folder in the Programs section of the Start menu and b) create shortcuts inside that folder that are linked to actual programs on your hard drive.

What do we mean by linked? You probably have a shortcut to Wordpad, a program that can open and edit many kinds of documents in Windows 98. Right-click on it, select Properties, and you'll get a box. You may have to select the Shortcut tab as well.

The Properties display for a shortcut gives you scads of useful information. For one thing, it helps you find the "real" object to which the shortcut points. You get its full path listing (C:/ProgramFiles/Accessories/Wordpad.exe), the old DOS way of writing where in the directory tree the file is.

If you hit the button marked "Find Target" you'll automatically open the folder that contains Wordpad. Note that the "Open In" box is blank. You can permanently select which folder the shortcut looks into for files by filling in this box with the desired path. For example, you might want a shortcut that automatically opens up inside the "My Documents" folder. You also can change the icon and create a keystroke combination that automatically activates the shortcut. If you want to make sure the shortcut isn't accidentally erased, you should click on the General tag and check the "Read Only" attribute.

Open up the other folders, and you'll find more shortcuts.

Want to create a shortcut? Piece of cake. Right-click on the object of your desire, select Create Shortcut and voila, there it is. Want to give the shortcut another name? Right-click on it, and choose Rename. If you dug deep in some subdirectory, right-click and choose "Send to Desktop" -- it will be easier to manage from there.

Hold it, I see a couple of hands up in the back there. The astute reader wishes to know why we need to bother with shortcuts. Why not just move the actual program we want to use into a folder in the Start menu?

Good question. You use a shortcut in place of a program because you can't move the original program file or the folder that contains it. Windows 98 simply can't track changes like that -- the links between the program and the various resources it uses collapse and the program won't run. If this seems dumb, it is; in fact, it is one of the amateurish things about Windows 98. (Apple's Macintosh, on the other hand, has only been able to keep track of such changes for, oh, at least 10 years.) To put it another way, you can't really reorganize your hard disk with Windows -- all you can do is reorganize the shortcuts.

Which brings us to question No. 2. Why don't we use programs as listed from their original folders, and not bother with a Start menu? You can use the programs directly by clicking on them. Trouble is, Windows 98 proliferates so many related overlay files it is difficult to find the actual program files even if you know what you are doing. A beginner couldn't make heads or tails of the disk and directories. We hate to make another invidious comparison to the Mac, but really, Windows is too cluttered compared to Apple's product.

Question No. 3: Since the Start folder looks like any other folder, can we modify it? Yes, indeed you can, and we'll see how next week.


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