Q. Who is the ‘genius’ responsible for the Windows Registry?

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A. I can only imagine what might have prompted this question. I’m guessing it was some sort of serious Registry problem!

I’ll answer your direct question; then I’ll try to address the root cause of your frustration.

Who wrote the first Windows Registry? It wasn’t a single person, but rather the Windows 3.1 development team. (The NT team was also developing a Registry at that time, but the Win3.1 version made it to market first.)

The developers were trying to solve a real and growing problem. In DOS and early Windows versions, programs stored their software requirements and settings in separate INI (initialization) files — one for each program.

That worked when PCs ran one program at a time. But with the advent of multitasking, two or more INI files might try to modify or control the same system setting or component, leading to “who’s in charge?” instabilities and crashes.

So to help avoid these conflicts, and to simplify resource sharing, the Win3.1 developers decided to include a repository — really just a simple, hierarchical database — where programs could register their requirements, settings, and other operational data. This central database would be managed by the operating system, thus helping it to mediate potential conflicts among system and user-installed applications.

Again, Win3.1 was a team effort, and we sort of know who they were. As with many other software products of that era, Win3.1 included an “Easter Egg” (a hidden and nonessential feature) that listed the names (first name and some initials) of all the developers who worked on it. You can see the Win3.1 developers’ Easter Egg in a YouTube video.

No particular Registry developer is singled out in the Easter Egg’s list. In fact, I can find no public record anywhere that specifically identifies the Win3.1 Registry’s authors. I assume that’s because the Registry was just one of many new features in the OS — and also possibly because hierarchical databases weren’t new or noteworthy. (IBM had produced the first computer-driven hierarchical databases some 30 years before.)

Addressing possible Registry frustrations: Although the Windows Registry has evolved over time, it’s still, at its core, just a special-purpose hierarchical database. There’s nothing really unique about it.

When any database has trouble, it’s usually not a problem with the database itself; rather, it’s with faulty data that got into the database.

Bad Registry entries are usually caused by the actions of poorly written software — typically, freeware, shareware, crapware, games, utilities, toolbars, and so forth — created by amateurs, unskilled programmers, pros who simply made mistakes, and miscreants seeking to distribute malware.

Moreover, sloppy programmers might focus on software installation and set up, leaving uninstall routines as an afterthought. Poorly written (or nonexistent) uninstall routines can leave behind digital junk or erroneous data in the Registry.

Over time, as applications are installed, updated, modified, and uninstalled, the Registry can accrue significant amounts of bogus data, bloat, and other unrepaired damage. And that can lead to malfunctions such as lost or incorrect file associations, incorrect icons, broken or blocked install/uninstall routines, and so on.

Again, while these malfunctions might appear to be a problem with the Registry itself, the real problem is accumulated bad data introduced by our software choices and other actions.

There are two major steps you can take to help avoid Registry problems.

1) Avoid junk software. Be aware that some freeware is truly low-quality code, and the publishers have little or no incentive to make it better. Some freeware offerings are mostly camouflage for potentially unwanted programs (PUPs — software that rides along with the app you’re installing) and even malware.

Paying for software doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always get great stuff, either, but it tilts the odds in your favor; the software publishers have fewer reasons to cut corners or turn rogue.

2) Do some simple system maintenance from time to time. Among other beneficial things, it can help keep your Registry lean, clean, and healthy. 

In short, the Registry is just a database. In the end, it’ll store whatever you (and your software) feed it.

But with just a little care and caution, you’ll likely go years without any serious Registry problems!

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Editor's note: We feature an abridged Q&A from Fred Langa's LANGALIST, a column available exclusively to paid subscribers of the Windows Secrets newsletter,. What you see here is just a small sampling of what Langa's writing for the newsletter — go here for more information on how to subscribe.