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Did you know? Windows has never had a “system tray”



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Comic Sans / Shutterstock.com

In fact, Windows has never had a “system tray.”

; For 25 years we have all made mistakes. Microsoft insists that these icons are in a “notification area.” So where did the term “system tray” come from? And why does Windows 10 call it the “system tray” – but only once?

This is a registration area, thank you!

If you look at Windows 10 – or Windows 7 or Windows Vista or Windows XP or Windows 98 – you will not find any references to the term “system tray” in the Windows interface.

Under Windows 10 taskbar settings (Settings> Customization> Taskbar), the settings for the “system tray” icons appear under “Message area.”

Message bar options on the Windows 10 taskbar settings screen.

The term “system tray” probably led to bloatware

Does it really play what it’s called – “message area” or “system bar”? Perhaps. Perhaps there is a greater philosophical difference here.

For decades, many Windows desktop applications have used the “system tray” as a place to hide themselves. Often you buy a new computer and find many pre-installed tools running in the background, often buried in the “system tray.”

The problem became so bad that Windows allowed you to hide icons behind a small arrow so that they do not fill the entire taskbar – and even automatically hide many of them for you! Incidentally, this is called the “flood area” or “overflow section” – Microsoft does not call it a compartment.

The taskbar notification bar was expanded.

It makes sense if this is just considered a “system field” that developers can throw everything into, like rubbish.

But Microsoft really wants developers to think of this as a “notification area” designed to display information and status information.

Microsoft Developer Documentation is clear on this topic: “It’s not intended for fast software or command access.”

Of course, a Windows PC is not an iPhone. While Apple may require developers to follow its best practices guidelines or ban its apps from the App Store, Microsoft may not require developers to follow their guidelines. But maybe – just maybe – if everyone thought of it as a “system tray”, developers would be less tempted to throw icons there.

Why does everyone think it’s called the system tray?

So why do so many call it the “system field”? You probably feel like you’ve even seen Microsoft call that “system tray” somewhere, right? Didn’t Microsoft call it that?

Yes, Microsoft employees have repeatedly called it the “system tray” in various documents over the years, much to the apparent consternation of the Windows shell team, so named because they are responsible for the Windows desktop “shell”, which includes the Taskbar.

Microsoft’s Raymond Chen wrote about this issue back in 2003. Entertainingly, people still call it the “system field” and the confusion continues 17 years later.

Telling the official history of the system tray, Chen points out that early development of Windows 95 had a “tray” instead of a taskbar:

In early buildings of Windows 95, the taskbar was not originally a taskbar. there was a folder window docked at the bottom of the screen that you can drag / drop things in / out of, in the same way as the organizer tray in the top drawer of the desk. This is where the name “compartment” came from. (Some may argue that this took the desktop metaphor a little too far.)

Microsoft discarded this idea and replaced it with the Windows 95 taskbar. As Raymond says, Microsoft wiped all mentions of the “magazine” everywhere from the shell documentation. No more compartments.

Later, Microsoft added message icons to the taskbar. These icons were placed in the “notification area” of the taskbar. Simple.

So what happened? How did the word “compartment” come up again? Chen gives up his best theory:

I think the reason people started calling it “system tray” is that on Win95 there was a program called “systray.exe” that showed some icons in the message bar: volume control, PCMCIA (as it was then called) status, battery meter. If you killed systray.exe, you lost these notification icons. So people thought, “Ah, systray has to be the component that handles those icons, and I bet its name is ‘system tray’.” Thus began the misconception that we have been trying to eradicate for over eight years …[[[[Editor’s note: It’s been over 25 years now!]

The notification area on the Windows 95 taskbar.
The message area on Windows 95. It looks like a tray, right?

So people called it the wrong thing. At least Microsoft itself clearly communicated, right? Well, if it …

Even worse, other groups [at Microsoft] (not the shell) picked up this error number and began to refer to the union in its own documentation and samples, some of which erroneously claim that “system field” is the official name of the message field.

So there it is. If even Microsoft employees can not even get the official name right in official documentation, it is no wonder that everyone else is confused.

Do we think that matters? Not really. How-To Geek is full of articles that call this feature “the system tray” because that’s what people call it – even many at Microsoft! But we also try to call it the “message area.”

If you are interested in this, we encourage you to read Raymond Chen’s entire blog post. His blog, The Old New Thing, is full of interesting facts like this that you just can not find anywhere else outside of Microsoft. For example, there is a blog post that explains why Windows stores system time in local time instead of Coordinated Unversal Time (UTC), like other operating systems.

Windows 10 calls it “System Tray” … Once

If you dig into Windows 10 settings, you’ll find that “notification bar” everywhere. The settings can be found in Settings> Personalization> Taskbar> Message area. The naming is very accurate.

In addition to … If you go to Settings> Easy Access> Narrator, you will find an option called “Minimize Narrator Home to System Bar.”

Windows 10s Narrator option that refers to a

So what does that tell us? It’s pretty clear – the developers working with the Narrator screen reader feature are separate from the team working with the Windows shell at Microsoft.

25 years after Windows 95, Microsoft still can not close even the name of the “system tray” internally. Call it the “system tray” all you want. Everyone knows what that means.

Does it really matter? Again, no. But it’s quite fun.

(And maybe Windows software would have abused it less if it was clearly for notifications instead.)


By the way, we took the screenshot of Narrator settings on Windows 10’s May 2020 update. We would not be surprised if MIcroosft cleans the interface and removes the term “system tray” in a future update. But it will probably come back again in the future.




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