The Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 Developer Story: Search and Organize


Microsoft Corporation

January 2006
Revised January 2007


Data: Search, Organize, Sharing
   Navigation and Organization Tools
   Advanced Data Search Technology
   Data Sharing
   Managing and Accessing Data
Search and Organize: A User's Perspective
   File Organization in Windows Vista
   Content Discoverability
   Search and Filtering in Windows Vista
See Also

In our first installment, an Introduction to the Vista Developer Story, we discussed the Top Ten Things to Do when developing a Windows Vista application. Every two weeks, a new story will be added to the downloadable Help file, which can be downloaded here. This week we are presenting a discussion on Data: Search, Organize, and Sharing.

Data: Search, Organize, Sharing

Windows Vista provides users with the tools to turn the raw data on their systems into useful information. These tools include optimizations in the storage, retrieval, and organization of native data and file types, as well as technologies for developers to extend this functionality.

Navigation and Organization Tools

Users are no longer restricted to ordering their information by its placement in folders on disk. Instead, users can apply concurrent and dynamically updating modes of organization:

  • Search Folders empower users to organize files, independent of their location on disk, by specific sets of criteria, formulated as search queries.
  • Information can be further organized by grouping files together into logical "Stacks".
  • Navigation and filter controls allow quick sorting and organization of files on local computers, over SharePoint portals, other Windows Vista computers, and indexed network shares.
  • Live Icons and Rich Preview empower users to quickly determine the usefulness of data files.
  • All these features can be extended to new data and file types by developers.

There has been some restructuring to the default organization of Windows files (referred to as the Windows namespace).

Advanced Data Search Technology

Improved search and indexing is integrated:

  • Search most any content on the computer, including e-mail, documents, and media.
  • The user and developer have easy access to full-text and metadata property searches.
  • Search is flexible (providing both simple and complex search queries) and comprehensive (supporting most data types).
  • Customization of the metadata of existing file and data types is supported for both developers and users.
  • A well-defined extensibility model allows the easy extension of the default search tool to handle new file and data types.

Data Sharing

Windows Vista supports the creation and maintenance of communities of interest by providing tools for data discoverability:

  • Support for the XML Paper Specification (XPS) as a way of defining and using complicated collections of documents. Users and applications can:
    • Easily share documents across platforms, without the need for the authoring application.
    • Create, annotate, and view fixed-layout paginated documents.
    • Digitally sign and apply rights management to documents.
    • Add annotations to documents, including XPS documents, using the managed System.Windows.Annotations namespace.
  • Subscription-based data sharing through RSS (Really Simple Subscription) is fully supported and integrated. The Windows Vista RSS Platform provides developers with a quick and easy way for creating RSS-enabled applications. Internet Explorer (IE) provides default support for RSS viewing.
  • Coordinating multiple hardware devices is simplified by the new and enhanced synchronization management technology.
  • Tools for controlling and regulating data access for both local and remote users.
  • Advanced data caching technology.

Managing and Accessing Data

Windows Vista provides a range of tools for the development of applications that provide users with faster and more reliable access to data services:

  • Improvements in transaction efficiency and reliability.
  • Data and query caching to improve data access performance while maintaining information coherency.
  • Windows Workflow Foundation provides the programming model, engine, and tools to assist developers to quickly build workflow-driven applications on Windows. It consists of a .NET Framework 3.0 namespace, an in-process workflow engine, and designers for Visual Studio 2005.

Search and Organize: A User's Perspective

Windows Vista provides an extensive infrastructure for the conversion of data, scattered across a computing environment, into useful information at the user's fingertips. Data organization and search empowers users with greater capabilities for finding, managing, and sharing data by enabling developers to build applications and create new data formats that integrate within the Windows Vista Shell.

Under Windows Vista, users can navigate, explore, and organize their data in more intuitive ways, supported by new capabilities of the operating system, such as Search Folders, Live Icons, and Rich Preview.

New search and organization tools are seamlessly integrated into Windows Vista, making use of metadata properties, fast indexing, and search technology. Users are thereby empowered to define their own organizational scheme and emphasize the dynamic nature of data.

File Organization in Windows Vista

Building on the new search technology infrastructure introduced into the operating system, Windows Vista provides much more powerful tools for organizing files. Users can choose between two folder paradigms for categorizing their information:

  • The traditional directory or folder
  • The new Search Folders

Within folders themselves, Windows Vista provides new aids to systematically browse available data.

Traditional folders

The access and use of traditional (physical) folders will remain fully supported and unchanged. As in prior releases, traditional folders are responsible for managing the physical lifetime and security of files; deleting a file from a traditional folder removes it from the system. Traditional folders, while robust and easy to use, are limited in how they support organization. Even when supplemented with shortcuts, there still is fundamentally only one access route to any given file, its path on disk. Effectively, folders provide a library without an index, and locating data within them can be difficult.

Search folders

Search Folders provide a new way to collect, visualize, and organize files. Search Folders are essentially a saved and automatically updated search, which is graphically represented in Windows Explorer as a folder. Throughout the user interface (UI) of Windows Vista, a Search Folder appears as a folder, colored blue by default, containing all the files that would be returned by the specified search used to define it. The contents of a Search Folder might change with time as files are added or removed from their physical folders, but the criteria for inclusion in the Search Folders (the search criteria) is constant. Because Search Folders are search-based, changes to them (for example, selecting or removing files from a Search Folder) do not affect the files stored on disk.

A Search Folder is commonly defined by search scope, object type, applied filters, or view state. In addition to defining Search Folders in terms of an explicit query, they can also be managed through drag-and-drop operations, effectively creating a custom search.

Traditional folders and Search Folders are complementary, with traditional folders managing the lifetime of a file and the physical organization of all files that exist in a traditional folder. Search Folders manage logical organization. Because of this, they appear side-by-side in the Windows Vista user experience.

Search folders on disk

Windows Vista provides users with a number of useful Search Folders as part of their default installation, including:

Search FolderContents
LibraryContents of:
  • c:\users\<user>\*
  • c:\users\public\*
  • Internet Explorer Favorites and History
  • Internet Explorer
  • MAPI e-mail

Remote files in the client-side cache

Computer LibraryAll files in system search index
All Drives and DevicesAvailable drives and devices
E-mailMAPI e-mail
Offline FilesRemote files in the client-side cache (CSC)
IE FavoritesInternet Explorer Favorites *
Recent Pictures and VideosRecently accessed images and videos
Favorite MusicMusic with a high rating
Fresh TracksRecent tracks from DVD or CD play

Each Search Folder that appears in the Windows Vista Explorer is represented as a file on disk located at C:\Users\<User>\Search Folders or C:\Public\Search Folders. These files contain an XML description of the query that is executed by the system to populate the Windows Vista Explorer display.


A stack is a new Windows Vista UI object that represents a user-defined, complex, logical collection of files (and other shell items). These contained items are references to existing items within either traditional or Search Folders that share some common features, typically metadata properties. The same file can appear in more than one stack.

Users can navigate into a series of stacks, which is analogous to adding new filter criteria to a Search Folder. The Breadcrumb bar reflects these navigations, to give users the feel of navigating folders.

Filter functionality

A filter provides additional tools for organizing information. Folders or search results may contain an excessive number of files, so that the volume of results obscures important information. The Windows Vista filtering technology makes use of metadata properties and the indexing engine to empower users to select what they see more precisely. The user can create a simple filter that uses file properties (such as name, type, keyword, and custom metadata) to narrow the current view of displayed files. Note that the filtering does not actually change the contents of the current traditional or Search Folder, just which contained items are displayed. This filtering can take place across the local systems, other Windows Vista-enabled systems, or Windows Vista-compatible Servers.

Content Discoverability

Users will have two new ways under Windows Vista for quickly scanning files to determine the potential usefulness of the data they contain: Live Icons and Rich Preview Handlers.

Live Icons

Live Icons replace and extend the concept of thumbnails in previous versions of Windows. They provide developers with a way to provide visual information about the data their applications contain or produce when viewed in the Windows Vista UI (for example, in Windows Explorer). Instead of having the system display the traditional static icon for an object, Live Icons display a large (256 x 256 pixel) and detailed (32 color bits per pixel) image that represents the current contents of the file. These images provide a strong hint to the user of the identity and potential usefulness of the files they encounter.

Rich Preview

When browsing data, it is often useful to preview items without having to launch the associated application. Windows Vista allows developers to provide users with a read-only preview of data in custom file formats. The preview is provided by a lightweight control that is integrated in Windows Explorer and the Common File Dialog.

Search and Filtering in Windows Vista

Windows Vista provides a dramatic overhaul of the traditionally robust searching and indexing mechanisms. Users will find that the new search and indexing technology provides them with power tools for locating important data, quickly and efficiently.


Under Windows Vista, the indexing engine is enabled by default. Information about a system is continually being updated, resulting in faster search speeds.

Because of its optimized design and low default priority, the indexing engine has only a small system impact, working when possible using idle cycles, and not interfering with higher priority processes. This allows the advantages of having a fresh index available, without any degradation of system performance.

Search functionality

The Windows Vista desktop provides instant access to searches for all common data types: e-mail (for example, Outlook .pst files), documents (for example, .pdf files), media and Internet content, and even new types (for example, RSS feeds).

Through a query interface integrated into Windows Explorer, users can query local or remote storage based on file name, standard metadata property, or full-text search. All file and data types support name, type, full text, and property-based searching. Application developers can ensure that custom file and data types have search support for their format and special metadata properties. Users can also make use of Windows Vista filtering, which uses the same underlying mechanisms as the Windows Vista search technologies.

A search under Windows Vista is defined by the following parameters:

  • Scope—the areas over which to conduct the search. Locations can be directories on a local computer, files on a Windows Vista-compliant remote system, or servers such as SharePoints.
  • Object type—selection based on Windows Explorer file types: Shortcut, Word document, application, e-mail, music, or an application-defined type.
  • Filters—selection based on metadata properties: author, date created or modified, title, size, word count, comment, kind, or type.
  • View state—selection based on the current view attributes: visible columns; detailed, icon, or thumbnail-view mode; or organization rules (for example, sorts, grouping, and stacking).

Comparing URLs and breadcrumbs in Search functionality

Windows Vista provides breadcrumbs as an alternative to http:// protocol addressing for browser navigation. A breadcrumb refers to a trail of Web sites (or folders) that the user has followed to get to a specific place on the Internet (or local drive). For example, has the associated breadcrumb: Microsoft > Downloads >.

Each breadcrumb item is a link to the associated page. Breadcrumbs can be given any color, shade, or font, including an underline. It is advised that breadcrumbs be given a different design than standard URL formats.

Advantages of breadcrumbs over URLs

User testing has demonstrated that breadcrumbs have a number of advantages over raw-text URLs, although both carry similar path content.

Users consider a URL more difficult to read. Part of the difficulty in interpreting URLs derives from their concatenated nature, use of unfamiliar symbols, and additional context/query information that is sometimes appended to URLs. For example, the following link navigates to the Microsoft Windows Defender site. Notice the query beginning with the question mark (?) symbol.

Its corresponding breadcrumb is much easier to comprehend:

Microsoft > Downloads > Defender

Users sometimes want to know where they are in a hierarchical structure and navigate relative to their current location. Breadcrumbs make this type of navigation much easier than editing raw URL text strings. This also applies to the results of searches.

See Also

Top 10 Ways to Light Up Your Windows Vista Apps