If I don’t have any items, what error should my IFolderView::Items method return?

Raymond Chen

A customer wanted to know what error code their shell extension should return from the IFolderView::Items method if their folder has no items.

This was a trick question, because you shouldn’t return an error at all!

Returning an error means, “I was unable to retrieve the list of items. Something terrible happened!” This generally leads to a cascade of failures, and Explorer gives up on your shell extension.

If you want to say “I have no items,” then return S_OK and an empty collection. If the requested interface is IEnumIDList, then return an enumerator that enumerates on objects. If the requested interface is IShellItemArray, then return a zero-sized array.

The point is that you want to say “I was able to get the items. And here they are!” (And you give them an empty collection.)

This is a general principle for all collection-returning functions: If you want to return an empty collection, then return an empty collection.¹ Don’t return an error.

Embrace the power of the empty set.

By analogy, suppose you had a method

class WidgetContainer
    std::vector<Widget> GetActiveWidgets();

If there are no active Widgets in the WidgetContainer, you shouldn’t throw an exception. You should just return an empty std::vector.

¹ In this case, the customer also tried returning S_OK and a null pointer from the IFolderView::Items method. This caused Explorer to crash on a null pointer, because Explorer asked for the items, and you said, “Sure, here they are!” and gave a null pointer.

There are some methods, such as IShellFolder::EnumObjects, which carve out a special case that permits you to return S_FALSE and a null pointer as the result. But these are special cases that apply only if the method explicitly permits it. And even then, they don’t allow you return a failure; returning a failure means that you were unable to get the items at all.


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  • Antonio Rodríguez 1

    Are there programmers asking this? Really? Someone writing a shell extension who doesn’t understand the difference between returning an empty array/collection and throwing an exception? No wonder there are so many buggy shell extensions out there (of which Windows gets the blame in the end). Sometimes I think Microsoft’s real mistake was to open the the shell extensions API…

    And yes, I understand that returning an error code isn’t technically the same as throwing an exception. But conceptually it is. Both are ways of telling “I have not been able to complete your request because of an error condition”. And both, if unexpected, can turn into a catastrophic failure.

    • Joshua Hudson 0

      The behavior of FindFirstFileName on an empty root directory or no files match the wildcard is to return an error code. The programmer’s hypothesis is not unreasonable.

      • Melissa P 0

        That’s kinda different. FindFirstFileName does not return a list, only a single entry. And a handle for requesting further entries. If no entry exists then the entry does not contain useful data, hence the function returns no handle and sets an error code. Old windows versions didn’t even clear the provided entry data structure on error.

      • Antonio Rodríguez 0

        IIRC, FindFirstFileName’s semantics are modeled on those of Unix’s readdir system call, because of NT’s requirement of Posix compliance. I don’t think you should compare a modern, object oriented API with one developed for a PDP-11 50 years ago. IFolderView::Items behaves the way that is expected in the 21st Century, but FindFirstFileName is an oddity of the past.

        • Joshua Hudson 0

          Except for the fact that readdir doesn’t have the actual behavior that’s being discussed here. It’s new in DOS.

          • Antonio Rodríguez 0

            First, I think you are confusing FindFirstFileName with FindFirstFile. FindFirstFileName operates on a file, and enumerates all the links (“names”) to it. It’s FindFirstFile who works on directories to enumerate their contents.

            That said, as per the readdir(3) man page, readdir returns a null pointer on an empty directory (or when it reaches the end of the file list), and sets the global variable errno to indicate the result. FindFirstFile in the same cases returns INVALID_HANDLE_VALUE and sets the last error. As you can see, the semantics are quite similar between both.

            I can’t find any reliable data, but I’m pretty sure readdir is much older than MS-DOS. Obviously, being an Unix system call, it wasn’t introduced in MS-DOS. And I would be surprised it it weren’t present in the first version of Unix from 1971, given that it is its basic method of directory enumeration, a service that any file-based OS has to provide.

        • Joshua Hudson 0

          I did indeed intend FindFirstFile.

          I seem to inhabit a strange world where readdir is man(2) readdir not man(3) readdir. The actual kernel interface is far saner than the library call. readdir_r is pretty good but there’s no corresponding opendir_r.

          In 1984 however the API was kind of stupid. You didn’t call opendir and readdir you called open and read, and had the directory entry header in system header files. This did have the nicety of no error vs end of list problems.

          But FindFirstFile is more analogus to opendir than readdir.

  • Melissa P 0

    Okay, Explorer crashing on accessing a returned nullptr is something I blame on Microsoft. Not much you can do if you receive a garbage pointer, but checking nullptr is something that should be done by heart, not even thinking about it. I can’t even count how many times I requested an object via QueryInterface or EnumAdapter, GetDevice etc and received S_OK with a nullptr.

    • Antonio Rodríguez 0

      What Raymond says in the article is that Explorer, if it receives an error code when invoking IFolderView::Items, interprets that the shell extension is broken, and stops working with it. I guess it may do the same if a null pointer is returned — as you say, a null pointer check is cheap. Frankly, that is the least it can do with a ill-behaving extension. If it didn’t shut down the extension, the probability of a hard crash would become greater with each call. And then, boom!, all folder windows are closed at once, and the user blames Explorer.

    • GL 1

      If `IUnknown::QueryInterface` returns `S_OK` with a `nullptr`, then the interface has been incorrectly implemented and all bets are off. If the object is loaded into `explorer.exe`, from the fact that it cannot implement `IUnknown` properly, we deduce that nothing much can be expected from this object and we might as well assume that the process is corrupted, so crashing really isn’t a bad idea. On the other hand, if the object is loaded out of process, then `explorer.exe` should gracefully refuse to work with that COM server.

  • Simon Geard 1

    Yes, I’ve had variants of this conversation many times before. No, don’t return 404 Not Found for an empty resource collection. No, don’t return null from functions that return lists, and no, don’t throw exceptions either. Empty collections are valid data.

    On the same note, don’t check if the collection was empty before iterating over it. Iterating over an empty collection is not unsafe, and will not be appreciably slower than checking for empty first. Think!

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