The dangers of mixing synchronous and asynchronous state

Raymond Chen


The window manager distinguishes between synchronous state
(the state of the world based on what messages your program
has received)
and asynchronous state (the actual state of the world this very instant).
We saw this earlier when discussing

the difference between GetKeyState and
Here are some other functions and their relationship to the queue state:

Use synchronous stateUse asynchronous state

If you query the asynchronous state while processing a message,
you can find yourself caught in a race condition,
because the synchronous state of the system when the message was generated
may not match the asynchronous state of the system when you receive it.
For example, if the users presses a key, and then moves the mouse,
calling GetCursorPos from your keypress handler
will tell you were the cursor is right now,
which is not the same as where the cursor was when the key was pressed.

Generally speaking, you should use the synchronous state during message
handling so that you react to the state of the system at the time the
input event took place.
Reacting to the asynchronous state of the system introduces race
conditions if there is a change to the system state between the time
the message was generated and the time the message is processed.

Of the above functions, GetTickCount is the only one
I can think of that has a legitimate usage pattern in common use,
namely, when creating timing loops.
But if you want to know what time it was when
a key was pressed, then
GetMessageTime is the function to use.

This is all a rather length lead-in for my remarks regarding
a comment claiming that

there is no practical reason why you can’t use
GetForegroundWindow to determine which window
was the one that had focus when a keyboard message was generated
Well, actually, there is, and it’s precisely the race condition
I’ve spent most of this article describing.
Suppose the user presses a key
and then switches to another program.
Now your program gets around to processing the keyboard input,
and you call GetForegroundWindow,
and instead of getting a window from your application,
you get some other window from another program.
You then pass that window handle to TranslateAccelerator,
the keyboard event matches an entry in the accelerator,
and boom, you just sent a random WM_COMMAND message
to a program that will interpret it to mean something completely

Remember, just because your program has the line

#define IDC_REFRESH 814

doesn’t mean that another program can’t have the line

#define IDC_DELETEALL 814

Now the user presses F5 and switches from your program
to that other program.
Your program processes the message, queries the asynchronous
foreground state with GetForegroundWindow, and gets
that other program’s window back.
You then translate the accelerator, and TranslateAccelerator
posts the WM_COMMAND(814) message to that other program,
which interprets it as “delete all”.

The great thing about this is that the users will probably blame the
other program.
“Sometimes, when I use this program, it spontaneously deletes all my
Stupid program.
It’s so buggy.”

Commenter poenits correctly points out that

I failed to take into account the case where the message is posted
directly to the dialog
(The dialog manager tries not to put keyboard focus on the dialog itself,
but if you play weird games, you can find yourself backed into that
situation, such as if you delete all the controls on a dialog!)
The fix, however, is not to translate the message directly to the
window with keyboard focus, because the window with keyboard focus
might belong to a third dialog that you don’t want to translate
accelerators for.
(That other window might have used the other header file which defines
message 814 to be IDC_DELETEALL.)
Just check for your specific window directly:

if (hwnd1== msg.hwnd || IsChild(hwnd1, msg.hwnd))
TranslateAccelerator(hwnd1, hAccel, &msg);
else if (hwnd2 == msg.hwnd || IsChild(hwnd2, msg.hwnd))
TranslateAccelerator(hwnd2, hAccel, &msg);

Think of TranslateAccelerator as
The first parameter to TranslateAccelerator must
be a window you are certain knows how to
interpret the WM_COMMAND message that you might
end up posting.
You know which windows understand your custom WM_COMMAND
Pass one of those known windows, not some random unknown window that
you calculated from unknown sources.

Passing an unknown window as the first parameter to
is like
falling for one of those phishing scams.
If you get a random piece of email telling you “Hey, call this
number and give me your personal information,”
you’re not going to do it.
If you really want to contact your bank,
you ignore the phone number in the email
and just call the number you know and trust to be your bank’s
service desk.
Similarly, you shouldn’t be posting your personal messages to
some random window you receive.
Post it to the known trusted window.
Otherwise you’re just sending your money
to some unknown recipient in Nigeria.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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