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Posted 8 Jun 2008
Licenced CPOL

ExecApp, ExecRegisteredApp, and LookupRegisteredApp - non-MFC functions to execute an application

, 8 Jun 2008
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ExecApp is a replacement for WinExec(). ExecRegisteredApp executes the app that is registered for the specified file extension. LookupRegisteredApp retrieves the application file path that is registered for the specified file extension.


I created these functions to handle common cases where you want to run an application and know application file name (the WinExec() case), or you don't know application file name, but do know type of file you want to open (the registered file extension case).

The functions described below have been tested on Windows 98, 2000, XP, and Vista.


Since we are being told that WinExec is now deprecated, it is necessary to use CreateProcess instead. There are a few things to watch out for with CreateProcess. The first is that CreateProcess creates two handles that you must close or you will have leaks. These are the process and thread handles, which are typically useful only if you are performing timing studies, monitoring critical threads, or something similar. The second thing to be aware of is how CreateProcess deals with arguments passed to the target application - the CreateProcess lpCommandLine parameter. It turns out that the simplest, most reliable way to use CreateProcess is to use NULL for the first parameter, and pass the application file path and arguments (each enclosed in quotes, separated by a space) in the second parameter.

Here is function header of ExecApp():

// ExecApp()
// Purpose:     Runs the specified application (replacement for WinExec)
// Parameters:  lpszCommandLine - [in] command line (including exe file path) 
//                                that is passed to CreateProcess()
//              wShowCmd        - [in] Specifies how app window is to be shown.
//                                See ShowWindow() in MSDN for possible values.
// Returns:     BOOL            - TRUE = CreateProcess() succeeded
BOOL ExecApp(LPCTSTR lpszCommandLine, WORD wShowCmd /*= SW_SHOWNORMAL*/)


LookupRegisteredApp() retrieves the application file path that is registered for the specified file extension. LookupRegisteredApp() does its work by calling the shell function AssocQueryString. This function is exported via the import lib shlwapi.lib, which is automatically linked to in ExecApp.cpp. (Note: requires Internet Explorer 5 or later).

Here is function header of LookupRegisteredApp():

// LookupRegisteredApp()
// Purpose:     Retrieves the application registered for the specified file 
//              extension
// Parameters:  lpszExt         - [in] file extension (e.g., ".txt") used to 
//                                look up application file path. Preceding '.' 
//                                is necessary.
//              lpszApplication - [out] application path buffer
//              nSize           - [in/out] size of path buffer in TCHARs
// Returns:     BOOL            - TRUE = found registered app
// Notes:       AssocQueryString() is broken in Vista. If no application is 
//              associated with the file extension, in Vista the function returns 
//              the "Unknown" application, rather than an error code (as in XP).
//              Adding ASSOCF_IGNOREUNKNOWN to the flags parameter will make the
//              function behave as in XP. ASSOCF_IGNOREUNKNOWN is defined in the 
//              latest Platform SDK.
BOOL LookupRegisteredApp(LPCTSTR lpszExt,
                         LPTSTR lpszApplication, 
                         DWORD *nSize)

Aside from the small glitch in using AssocQueryString on Vista (see Notes in preceding header), there is another, more serious problem with AssocQueryString: the ANSI version of this function (AssocQueryStringA) doesn't work. I don't know what the exact problem is, but the workaround is to convert the parameters to Unicode, call AssocQueryStringW, and then convert the result to ANSI. This is why ExecApp.cpp contains the private (static) function _AssocQueryString.


Here is a common scenario: you want to allow user to edit/view a file (such as a log file). But the ".log" file extension might not be registered to an editor on the user's system. What to do? Of course you could just throw the file at ShellExecute, but you know what will happen: the user will be presented with a dialog, and then have to go through some clunky browse sequence, and then you will get a support call. Since you know the log file is just plain ASCII, it's better to ask the system to execute the application that is associated with .txt files, passing it the name of the log file. That is what ExecRegisteredApp() does.

Here is function header of ExecRegisteredApp():

// ExecRegisteredApp()
// Purpose:     Runs the application registered for the specified file extension
// Parameters:  lpszArgs - [in] command line arguments that are passed to app
//                         via CreateProcess();  if not already in quotes ("),
//                         they will be enclosed in quotes before CreateProcess()
//                         is called.  May be NULL.
//              lpszExt  - [in] file extension (e.g., ".txt") used to look up
//                         application file path.  Preceding '.' is necessary.
//              wShowCmd - [in] Specifies how the app window is to be shown.
//                         See ShowWindow() in MSDN for possible values.
// Returns:     BOOL     - TRUE = found registered app; CreateProcess() succeeded
BOOL ExecRegisteredApp(LPCTSTR lpszArgs,    // may be NULL
                       LPCTSTR lpszExt, 
                       WORD wShowCmd /*= SW_SHOWNORMAL*/)

Is ExecRegisteredApp() a replacement for ShellExecute? No, absolutely not. If you're 100% sure that a file type (for example, .html) is registered on the target system, then you should certainly use ShellExecute. But there are times when you can't be sure, and it's not possible to register a custom file type. This is where ExecRegisteredApp() is useful.

ExecApp Demo

Here is what the ExecApp demo looks like:


How to use

Step 1 - Add Files

To integrate ExecApp into your app, you first need to add following files to your project:

  • ExecApp.cpp
  • ExecApp.h

The .cpp file should be set to Not using precompiled header in Visual Studio. Otherwise, you will get error

fatal error C1010: unexpected end of file while looking for precompiled header directive

Step 2 - Add Header File to Your Source Module

In the module where you want to use ExecApp, include header file ExecApp.h .

Step 3 - Add Code

See ExecAppTestDlg.cpp for examples of how to use.

The file ExecApp.cpp contains definitions necessary to use the AssocQueryString API. If you have the latest Platform SDK, you can use that instead of the embedded definitions by un-commenting the line #include <shlwapi.h> in ExecApp.cpp.

Revision History

Version 1.0 - 2008 June 8

  • Initial public release


This software is released into the public domain. You are free to use it in any way you like, except that you may not sell this source code. If you modify it or extend it, please to consider posting new code here for everyone to share. This software is provided "as is" with no expressed or implied warranty. I accept no liability for any damage or loss of business that this software may cause.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Hans Dietrich
Software Developer (Senior) Hans Dietrich Software
United States United States
I attended St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto, with the intention of becoming a priest. A friend in the University's Computer Science Department got me interested in programming, and I have been hooked ever since.

Recently, I have moved to Los Angeles where I am doing consulting and development work.

For consulting and custom software development, please see

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralCan't get the full path use app name on windows vista(windows7) Pin
liquanhai30-Sep-10 21:24
memberliquanhai30-Sep-10 21:24 
Generalweird results in Win7 Pin
Sonar10-Sep-10 14:07
memberSonar10-Sep-10 14:07 
GeneralDoesn't work on Win 7 64-bit Pin
Super Garrison12-Dec-09 8:38
memberSuper Garrison12-Dec-09 8:38 
GeneralRe: Doesn't work on Win 7 64-bit Pin
Hans Dietrich12-Dec-09 8:46
mvpHans Dietrich12-Dec-09 8:46 
GeneralRe: Doesn't work on Win 7 64-bit Pin
Super Garrison12-Dec-09 10:56
memberSuper Garrison12-Dec-09 10:56 
GeneralRe: Doesn't work on Win 7 64-bit [modified] Pin
Hans Dietrich12-Dec-09 11:34
mvpHans Dietrich12-Dec-09 11:34 
GeneralRe: Doesn't work on Win 7 64-bit Pin
Super Garrison12-Dec-09 17:45
memberSuper Garrison12-Dec-09 17:45 
GeneralError while compiling Pin
danandu12-Jun-08 2:15
memberdanandu12-Jun-08 2:15 
GeneralRe: Error while compiling Pin
Hans Dietrich12-Jun-08 2:32
mvpHans Dietrich12-Jun-08 2:32 
GeneralWinExec... Pin
AlexEvans10-Jun-08 17:11
memberAlexEvans10-Jun-08 17:11 
GeneralRe: WinExec... Pin
Hans Dietrich10-Jun-08 22:55
mvpHans Dietrich10-Jun-08 22:55 
GeneralUseful Pin
inline8-Jun-08 20:56
member inline 8-Jun-08 20:56 
GeneralRe: Useful Pin
Hans Dietrich8-Jun-08 21:22
mvpHans Dietrich8-Jun-08 21:22 

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