What’s with this MSH_MOUSEWHEEL message?

Raymond Chen

The hardware folks had this mouse wheel thing they were making, and they needed a way to get applications to support the mouse. Now, one way of doing this was to say, “Well, we’ll start selling this wheel mouse, but no applications can use it until the next version of Windows is released, one that supports the wheel.” Of course, that would have meant waiting until Windows NT 4 came out, and who know when that would be. Plus it meant that people would have to upgrade Windows in order to take advantage of their fancy new mouse. As you can imagine, they weren’t too pleased with the “wait a few years” plan.

In the interim, they proposed a stopgap mechanism for applications to respond to the mouse wheel. Enter the zmouse.h header file and its MSH_MOUSEWHEEL registered message. When you installed the wheel mouse driver, it listened for wheel events from the hardware and posted this new message when the mouse wheel turned, and applications could just respond to either the WM_MOUSEWHEEL message (if running on a version of Windows that supported the message) or the MSH_MOUSEWHEEL message (if running on an older version of Windows that didn’t). Unfortunately, the two messages behave differently, so it’s not a simple matter of writing

if (uMsg == WM_MOUSEWHEEL || uMsg == g_msgWheel) {
 … do wheel stuff …

(These next few paragraphs summarize what is already spelled out in MSDN; you can skip them if you already know how the messages work.)

First, let’s look at WM_MOUSEWHEEL. This message is delivered to the window that has focus (in the SetFocus sense). If the window procedure doesn’t handle the message and just passes it through to the DefWindowProc function, then the DefWindowProc function forward the message to the window’s parent. In this way, the WM_MOUSEWHEEL message automatically “bubbles outward” from the focus window up the parent chain until somebody finally handles the message (or it goes all the way to the top without being handled at all).

On the other hand, the MSH_MOUSEWHEEL message works from the outside in. It is delivered to the foreground window (in the SetForegroundWindow sense). If the window procedure doesn’t want to handle the message, it can forward the message to child windows of its choice, until one of them returns TRUE to indicate that the message was handled, or until no further candidates exist.

I’ll summarize these differences in a table, since people seem to like tables so much.

Propagation direction Inside-out Outside-in
Propagation mechanism DefWindowProc SendMessage
Handling Automatic Manual: Application checks return value
from child to determine what to do next
Return value if processed Zero TRUE
Return value if not processed DefWindowProc FALSE

Notice that WM_MOUSEWHEEL is much simpler, and the inside-out propagation mechanism retains the spirit of other messages such as WM_CONTEXTMENU and WM_SETCURSOR. Why can’t MSH_MOUSEWHEEL do it the same way?

Well, first of all, MSH_MOUSEWHEEL doesn’t have the luxury of being able to modify the DefWindowProc function. After all, that’s the whole point of introducing the message in the first place, because we’re trying to add wheel support to an older operating system that predated mouse wheels. Put in other words, if we could modify DefWindowProc to handle the MSH_MOUSEWHEEL message, then we wouldn’t have needed the MSH_MOUSEWHEEL message to begin with; we would’ve just modified DefWindowProc to handle the WM_MOUSEWHEEL message.

The argument in the previous paragraph is a frustratingly common one. Given a problem X and a workaround Y, somebody will ask, “Why didn’t you use method Z?” If you look at method Z, though, you’ll see that it suffers from the exact same problem X.

Here’s a real-world example of the “confused workaround”:

“Since the I-90 bridge is closed, I can’t take the 550 bus to get from Bellevue to Safeco Field. Instead, I’m going to take the 230 to Redmond, and then change to the 545.”

— Well, that’s silly. Why not take the 245 to Eastgate, and then change to the 554? It’s a lot faster.

“Um, the 554 uses the I-90 bridge, too.”

Okay, so you can’t change DefWindowProc, but why not at least propagate the MSH_MOUSEWHEEL from the inside out instead of from the outside in?

Starting with the focus window assumes you can even find out what the focus window is, but if you had paid attention to the Five Things Every Win32 Programmer Should Know, you would have known that each thread has its own focus window. (Not nitpickily true, but true enough.) Consequently, when the helper program that injects MSH_MOUSEWHEEL messages calls GetFocus, it just gets its own focus window, not the focus window of the thread that controls the foreground window. (Remember, we’re talking 1996, long before the GetGUIThreadInfo function was invented. History buffs can find out more from Meet The Inventor of the Mouse Wheel.) Since inside-out was off the table, that pretty much forced outside-in.

Now that you know how mouse wheel messages work, you can explain the behavior this customer is seeing:

I’m seeing the WM_MOUSEWHEEL message being delivered to the wrong child window. I have a parent window with two children. Even though I move the mouse pointer over child 1, the WM_MOUSEWHEEL goes to child 2.


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