Restating the obvious about the WM_NOTIFY message

Raymond Chen

It appears that people seemed to appreciate restating the obvious about the WM_COMMAND message, so I’ll try it again with the WM_NOTIFY message.

The WM_NOTIFY message is typically used by a control to communicate with its parent, either to provide information, request it, or both. Although that is the typical use, there are exceptions. For example, property sheets send the WM_NOTIFY to their children. Property sheets are this sort-of backwards model, where the common controls provide the parent window (the property sheet) and applications provide the child windows (the property sheet pages). The window manager doesn’t care who sends the message to whom, as long as the sender and recipient are in the same process.

The message cannot cross a process boundary because WM_NOTIFY is basically a sender-defined version of WM_USER. Anybody can define a new notification code and associate it with any structure they want (as long as the structure begins with a NMHDR). The window manager can’t marshal the structure between processes because the structure is defined by the control, not the window manager.

A little elaboration of that “sender-defined version of WM_USER“: As we saw, the meaning of WM_USER messages is determined by the implementor of the window class. In other words, the code receiving the message decides what WM_USER means. That works great if you’re some external code that wants to send a message to a known window class. But what if you’re external code that wants to send a message to an unknown window class? For example, you’re a list view control and you want to tell your parent about some event. You want to send a message to the parent window, but which message? You can’t send anything in the WM_USER range because each parent window defines independently what those messages mean, and it’s highly unlikely that all the parent windows are going to agree that WM_USER+205 means the same thing. For similar reasons, the WM_APP range is no good. A registered message would work, but if you have hundreds of potential events, then a hundred registered messages is a bit heavy-handed. The old-school answer to this was the WM_COMMAND message, whose notification code is defined by the sending control. Unfortunately, the notification code is all you get; the other parameters are busy doing other things. Enter WM_NOTIFY, which is basically WM_COMMAND on steroids: The NMHDR structure contains everything that was in the WM_COMMAND message, and since it’s a structure, you can embed the NMHDR inside a larger structure to provide (and possibly receive) more information.

Okay, end of strange digression.

The NMHDR structure itself is a convention, in the same way that the parameters to WM_COMMAND are a convention. The hwndFrom member is supposed to be the control that generated the notification, but there’s no enforcement.

First, there’s no way to enforce it. A window doesn’t send a message; code sends a message. You can check the thread that is executing the code that is sending a message, but you don’t know which window that code is associated with.

“Well, the window that is sending the message is the one that most recently received a message.”

That doesn’t work because you can have code associated with one window call code associated with another window without actually sending a message. In fact, you probably do this all the time:

class CFrame : public CWindow {
 LRESULT OnCommand(...);
 CGraphWindow *m_pwndGraph;
LRESULT CFrame::OnCommand(...)
 switch (idFrom) {
 case IDC_CPU: // user clicked the "CPU" button
  m_pwndGraph->ChangeMode(CPU); // change to a CPU graph

Suppose that CGraphWindow::ChangeMode function calls SendMessage as part of its processing. Which window “sent” this message? Since you have the power to read code, the message was conceptually sent by CGraphWindow, but the most recently received message is a WM_COMMAND sent to the frame window.

Your method call is just a transfer of control inside your program. The window manager doesn’t know what’s going on. All it knows is that it delivered a WM_COMMAND message to the frame window, and then some mystery code executed, and the next thing you know, somebody is sending a message. It doesn’t have the source code to your program to know that “Oh, that’s coming from CGraphWindow::ChangeMode, and to get the window handle for CGraphWindow, I should call CGraphWindow::operator HWND().” (And even if it did, imagine your surprise when your breakpoint on CGraphWindow::operator HWND() gets hit because SendMessage called it!)

Second, even if there were some psychic way for the window manager to figure out which window is sending the message, you still wouldn’t want that. It is common for WM_NOTIFY handlers of complex controls to forward the message to another window. For example, the list view control in report mode receives WM_NOTIFY messages from the header control and forwards them back out to its own parent, so that the list view parent can respond to header notifications. (The parent normally should just let the list view handle it, but the operation is performed in case you’re one of those special cases that needs it.)

Okay, back to what the fields of NMHDR mean. There are only three fixed fields to NMHDR and they pretty much match up with the parameters to WM_COMMAND:

  • hwndFrom is the handle to the window that is the logical source of the notification.

  • idFrom is the control ID corresponding to the window specified by hwndFrom. In other words, idFrom = GetDlgCtrlID(hwndFrom).

  • code is the notification code. The meaning of this notification code depends on the window class of hwndFrom.

It is an unwritten convention that the notification codes for the common controls are all negative numbers. This leaves positive numbers for applications to use for their own purposes. Not that applications strictly speaking needed the help, because the meaning of the notification code depends on the window that generated the notification, so if you want a brand new 32-bit message number namespace, just register a new window class, and boom, a whole new range of codes becomes available just to you. (Even though the notification code values do not need to be unique across window classes, the common controls team tries to keep the system-defined notification codes from overlapping, just to make debugging easier.)

The idFrom member is provided as a convenience to the window receiving the message so that it can use a simple switch statement to figure out who is sending the notification.

Once you figure out which notification you’re receiving, you can use the documentation for that notification to see which structure is associated with the notification. This answers Norman Diamond’s complaint that he couldn’t figure out what to cast it to. For example, if the notification is LVN_ITEMCHANGING, well, let’s see, the documentation for LVN_ITEMCHANGING says,

pnmv = (LPNMLISTVIEW) lParam;

pnmv: Pointer to an NMLISTVIEW structure that identifies the item and specifies which of its attributes are changing.

In other words, your code goes something like this:

 pnmv = (LPNMLISTVIEW) lParam;
 ... do stuff with pnmv ...

I’m not sure how much more explicit the documentation could be made to be. All it was missing was the word case in front.


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