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Posted 1 May 2013

The power of the Win32 API!

, 1 May 2013
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The power of the Win32 API!

Do you remember Windows 95? Yes, Windows was no longer a 16 bit operating system. Now with a 32 bit operating system, more would be possible with software. How much memory did Windows 95 require ? My first Windows 95 computer was one which I upgraded from DOS/Windows 3.1 which only had 8 megabytes of RAM. So how did an operating system like Windows run so well on so little memory ? The average CPU back then was likely a 386 or 486 class CPU which was in the 25 to 32 mhz range. From todays perspective, such a thing would almost seem impossible. The official system requirements were a 386 CPU, 4 megabytes of RAM and 55 megabytes of diskspace. Most computers today have CPU’s in the 1 to 2 Ghz range with 2 to 4 gigabytes of ram. So much power is now in our hands. But is it really ?

So how was Windows 95 possible with so little hardware ?

The operating system was designed around a set of flat API’s (basically function calls). Often refered to as the Win32 API, the operating system provided a set of low level features which could be used to build applications. The efficiency of that operating system to run on such minimal hardware says a lot. But what many may not appreciate today is that how software which ran on Windows 95 was written is far different than how software is written today. While MFC (Microsoft Foundation Classes) was already being used by some developers at that time, many applications were still written using the pure Windows API’s alone. Doing this created applications with less dependencies. If you examine the Windows programming books available at that time, while some discussed using MFC, there were a number which taught programming using the pure Win32 API’s alone. Having been exposed to Win32 programming much later, nearly 15 years after Windows 95, I can appreciate why some programmers chose MFC over the the pure Win32 API’s, since working with the Win32 was not an easy task. But the Win32 API’s though do have one real advantage. Working closer to the core operating system allows one to build applications which are smaller, faster and which requires a minimal footprint (less memory and disk space).

So what happened to Windows development ?

I am sure many programmers have a different perspective on this, but my own experience is quite unique and offers a different perspective on this. My programming started back on the days of CPM, before even DOS. When the IBM compatible PC came along, I started programming in Microsoft QuickBasic, then PDS 7.1 (professional version of QuickBasic). I even wrote some libraries for the compiler using assembler. There were three criteria for my development needs, (1) Fast development (2) Easy to read syntax and (3) Performance. Using a quality BASIC compiler along with a little bit of assembler provided me with all three.

When it came time to move to Windows, like many BASIC programmers I quickly latched onto Visual Basic 1.0 (for 16 bit, and later 5.0 for 32 bit). I dabbled with a number of Basic programming languages such as GFA Basic and CA Realizer, but Visual Basic provided the easiest transition for me. But something happened to my programming experience which would change things drastically. I switched to a different Basic language compiler which was more akin to programming in C in Windows, which forced me to start learning how to work with the Win32 API’s. There were no RAD tools for me to use at the time. Everything had to be coded manually in a code editor without a RAD front end. It was very difficult at first, not so much because the WIN32 API’s were too complex to work with, but because all the documentation about the Windows API were written for C (or C++) programmers. I had to port a lot of C code to Basic, which wasn’t easy because I was not a C programmer. To make things even more difficult, in the C world programmers had quickly adopted MFC, so many of the programming books dealt with MFC, rather than the Win32 API’s directly. Over the years I would scan online looking for old copies of programming books which dated back to the early to mid 1990′s. For example I just could not find a book which explained how to write custom window classes using the WIN32. The only (and best) one I could find dated back to Windows 3.1, but it was amazing how little had changed since then.

It was interesting to see the direction that Visual Basic followed during these and later years. In the 16 bit days of Windows 3.1, Visual Basic added the VBX custom control format which was a real benefit to Visual Basic programmers back then. It was later replaced by the OCX (COM based) custom control format. While there were many advantages to these component models, the OCX would, in my opinion, introduce a downhill slide in the Windows programming model. I first experienced this when I wrote an application which could be used as a utility for a multimedia development tool. I was a beta tester for a product called MediaForge, a powerful multimedia development tool. The developer of that software was an amazing C programmer with an extensive knowledge of the Windows API. When I sent him my Visual Basic application (an HTML generator utility), the first thing he commented on was whether I could get rid of the OCX’s that had to be distributed with my app. I was forced to use OCX’s for simple things like the common dialogs. It would not be until some years later when I started digging into the Win32 API’s myself, that I would come to appreciate how bloated some software became because of overuse of the OCX component model. The code needed to impliment a common dialog via the API was minimal compared to the size of the Visual Basic OCX. So what was the problem here ?

Object Oriented Programming changes things.

The real cause for the software bloat was, in my opinion, the overuse of the COM component model and the overuse of object oriented programming model. While they both have their value, their overuse has added a significant amount of extra overhead to Windows programming, far more than most programmers would like to admit. How do I know this ?

(For some more info about the weaknesses of OOP consider these articles:)

When I started learning how to program using the pure Win32 API’s, I had a few advantages that the early Windows programmers may not have had. First, I had a chance to see how the Win32 API remained basically intact over multiple generations of Windows. The few changes made, were easy to work with since Windows from the days of Windows 95 has had a few very important features which have remained steadfast in every generation. One is the trusty DLL (dynamic link library). The DLL design, in my opinion, was simply ingenious. DLL’s are truly dynamic, produce reusable code and they tend to have a much smaller footprint than their OCX counterparts , plus they normally don’t need to be registered with the operating system, meaning the registry need not be involved. You can simply copy and run. The second important feature, associated with DLL’s again, is the ability to dynamically load DLL’s (via the LoadLibrary API), rather than staticly link them at compile time (the DLL is still separate, but the EXE header tells Windows to load the DLL automatically). Dynamic loading allows you to poll the DLL to see if an API exists or not, so you can take adantage of features in later versions of Windows if you like.

The second advantage I had was that I used a BASIC language compiler rather than C. The amazing thing about this was that working with the pure WIN32 API’s was so much easier using Basic, than it would have been using C. The language syntax made code more readable, the powerful memory management built in made coding easier, the compilers built in support for variable lengths strings (using the Windows OLE engine) made things much easier as well. For once, WIN32 code made sense and was readable. I didn’t need to use MFC. I could write applications using the WIN32 API alone.

Interesting results !

Of course to be able to write software faster it only made sense to design RAD tools, but once again the power of the WIN32 API’s proved an advantage. As I went from just a beginner API programmer to an experienced one, I began to solve more and more problems using the pure WIN32 API’s. Of course, every programmer needs some kind of higher level libraries, so I began to build my own. Because I used a Basic language compiler, I had no MFC to fall back on. I had to build my own libraries.

So while building a reusable GUI library was important, I had some basic rules. The library must be in DLL format. API’s which didn’t exist on some earlier versions of Windows, had to be polled for and then loaded dynamically, so the library would be compatible with all versions of Windows from 95 to Windows 8. If possible when an API was not available on an earlier version of Windows alternate code was added to support similar features if possible. At the minimum, the library must support all of its features on at least Windows XP forward.

Since I didn’t even have the benefit of a drag and drop visual designer to help me, I decided that I needed to learn how to build that from scratch using the Win32 API’s. Any complex task using the WIN32 API’s which took some time to develop, I decided should be put into library code so it can be reused. Code reusability is not dependent upon the object oriented programming model as some may think. Procedural, flat API, programming models can also benefit from high level reusable code libraries. The key to working with the Win32 API’s is to build such reusable libraries.

So the final results have been interesting. First, I found there are some very powerful low level features in Windows which have been there since Windows 95 and are still fully supported in Windows 8. For example the DIB (device independent bitmap) API’s are very useful and very powerful. The Win32 API’s offer so many different ways of customizing user interface elements (controls). Such things as subclassing and superclassing are powerful tools. Fortunately I found one of the few books written about how to write custom window classes (controls) using the Win32 API’s (and the term class does not mean it is object oriented in this case). I have written a number of custom window classes using the Win32′s, such as my own Canvas control with a low level DIB engine and 2D sprite engine, an OpenGL based 3D Canvas control with a 3D scripting language, a Turtle Graphics control and a Property Listbox control. For me, as a Win32 programmer, the possibilities seem endless.

But the most amazing thing about all of this was the size and footprint of the GUI libraries I was able to build using the Win32 API’s. The entire GUI library can fit on an old fashioned floppy disk with room to spare. When I realized that I could write complex GUI libraries and applications which can run on most versions of Windows in use today with a minimal amount of memory (easily 64 meg or less), which are truly transportable (just copy and run, even from a flash drive) and can easily be run on the most minimal of computer hardware (ie. 233 mhz or less CPU), it is very exciting. While most programmers may be stifled by the minimal hardware on some Windows tablets today, for a Win32 programmer the average Atom based Tablet is far more than adequate, but is a powerhouse.

So if you are looking for an alternative way of writing software which has a minimal footprint, then seriously consider what has been around since the days of Windows 95, the Win32 API’s.


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


About the Author

Chris Boss
Software Developer Computer Workshop
United States United States
Chris Boss is the owner (and programmer) of a small software development business in rural Virginia, called the Computer Workshop. For the last ten years or so he has been developing tools for use by Powerbasic programmers (see: ). His main product called EZGUI (Easy GUI) is a high level GUI engine with Visual Designer and code generator. It is in its fifth generation now. He is an experienced Windows API programmer (more low level) and has experience in writing GUI engines (forms/controls), drag and drop Visual Designers, Graphics engines (printing and to the screen) and one of his favorites is a Sprite engine (2D animated movable images). His current project is version 5.0 of his main product EZGUI, adding such features as multi-monitor support, component engine, custom control engine, superclass engine and the latest project a 3D OpenGL based custom control. One of the goals he has is to push the limits of Windows software development, while making it easy, fast execution speed, small footprint (size of executables) and code reusability while providing a more graphic experience in user interfaces, while still being able to write software which can fit on a floppy disk (small footprint), use minimal amount of memory and able to run on multiple versions of Windows from 95 to Win8.

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralYou are RIGHT!!! Pin
griffwk9-Jan-14 2:40
membergriffwk9-Jan-14 2:40 
GeneralRe: You are RIGHT!!! Pin
Chris Boss9-Jan-14 5:35
professionalChris Boss9-Jan-14 5:35 
GeneralRe: You are RIGHT!!! Pin
Chris Boss9-Jan-14 6:28
professionalChris Boss9-Jan-14 6:28 
QuestionMay seem a bit old fashioned to some, but there is a benefit. Pin
Chris Boss2-May-13 8:05
memberChris Boss2-May-13 8:05 
OK, to all the main stream developers using Visual Studio and this article may seem a bit old fashioned, but the point is that the WIN32 API's are alive and well and for those desiring to build apps which have better performance. are truly portable (copy and run even on a flash drive or skydrive) and have a minimal footprint perfect for todays Windows tablet, there is some value here.

Unlike the new Metro UI (WINRT), which only works with Windows 8, the WIN32 allows development for XP, Vista, 7 and Windows 8 and even runs well on Linux using Wine. Metro also does not support OpenGL, but working with the WIN32's OpenGL provides some benefits not even found with DirectX.

Sadly, "native coding" is becoming a lost art.
Question[My vote of 2] That's nice but .... Pin
Member 90823652-May-13 7:10
memberMember 90823652-May-13 7:10 

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