How do I accept files to be opened via IDropTarget instead of on the command line?

Raymond Chen


Commenter Yaron wants to know

how to use the new IDropTarget mechanism for receiving a list of files
to open
(Also asked by
Anthony Wieser as a comment to an article.)
The MSDN documentation on Verbs and File Assocations mentions that

DDE has been deprecated as a way of launching documents

and that

you should use the DropTarget method instead
But what is the DropTarget method?
(Note that the word method here is in the sense of
technique and not in the C++ sense of function that
belongs to a class

The documentation in MSDN tells you what to do, but it does so
very tersely. It says to create a DropTarget
key under the verb key and create a Clsid string
value whose data is the string version of the CLSID for your
drop target.
The documentation tells you to be careful in your
IDropTarget::Drop, so it stands to reason that
IDropTarget is the interface that will be used.
From context, therefore, you should expect that the shell is going to

simulate a drop
on your drop target.

You can implement your drop target either as an in-process server
or a local server.
The in-process case is well-known;
nearly all shell extensions are in-process.
But using an in-process server for the DropTarget technique
only solves half the problem:
Sure, the IDropTarget::Drop will take place and you will
get your IDataObject,
but you still have to transfer the file list from your shell extension
running inside the

context menu host

to your application.
May as well let COM do the heavy lifting of marshalling the data.
(Well, okay, maybe using COM is overkill.
You might have a lighter weight way of getting the data across,
but since that’s out of scope for today’s exercise, I’ll leave it
for you to figure out.)

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!
It turns out that nearly all the work is just creating a COM local
If you know how to do that already, then I apologize in advance
for the oppressive boredom about to fall upon you.
I’ll try to remember to wake you up when something interesting
is about to happen.
Note also that I am not an expert on COM local servers,
so if you find a discrepancy between what I write and information from people
who actually know what they’re doing, go with the people who
know what they’re doing.
(Actually, that sentence pretty much applies in general to everything
I write.)
Indeed, I had never written a COM local server before now,
so all of what you see here is the result of a crash course
in COM local servers from reading the documentation.
(Translation: You could’ve done this too.)

Start by adding some header files and a forward reference.

#include <shlobj.h>
#include <shellapi.h>
#include <new> // for new(nothrow)
void OpenFilesFromDataObject(IDataObject *pdto);

Next, I’m going to steal

the Process­Reference class

which I had created some time ago.
It’s not the most efficient solution to the problem,
but it works well enough, and it’s a nice preparatory step in case
a shell extension loaded into our process needs to take a process
We use the process reference object to keep track of our outstanding
objects and locks.

ProcessReference *g_ppr;

Of course our custom drop target needs a class ID:

const CLSID CLSID_Scratch = { ... };

I leave it to you to fill in the CLSID structure
from the output of uuidgen -s.

Next, our simple drop target.
COM servers need to keep track of the number of objects that
have been created, so we’ll piggyback off our existing process reference.

class SimpleDropTarget : public IDropTarget
 SimpleDropTarget() : m_cRef(1) { g_ppr->AddRef(); }
 ~SimpleDropTarget() { g_ppr->Release(); }
 // *** IUnknown ***
 STDMETHODIMP QueryInterface(REFIID riid, void **ppv)
  if (riid == IID_IUnknown || riid == IID_IDropTarget) {
    *ppv = static_cast<IUnknown*>(this);
    return S_OK;
  *ppv = NULL;
  return InterlockedIncrement(&m_cRef);
  LONG cRef = InterlockedDecrement(&m_cRef);
  if (cRef == 0) delete this;
  return cRef;

Next come the methods of IDropTarget,
none of which are particularly interesting.
We just say that we are going to copy the data.

 // *** IDropTarget ***
 STDMETHODIMP DragEnter(IDataObject *pdto,
    DWORD grfKeyState, POINTL ptl, DWORD *pdwEffect)
  *pdwEffect &= DROPEFFECT_COPY;
  return S_OK;
   POINTL ptl, DWORD *pdwEffect)
  *pdwEffect &= DROPEFFECT_COPY;
  return S_OK;
  return S_OK;
 STDMETHODIMP Drop(IDataObject *pdto, DWORD grfKeyState,
    POINTL ptl, DWORD *pdwEffect)
  *pdwEffect &= DROPEFFECT_COPY;
  return S_OK;
 LONG m_cRef;

People who know how COM servers work wake up:
When something is dropped on our drop target, we call
That’s actually not all that interesting, but at least it’s
People who know how COM servers work can go back to sleep now.

The next part of the code is just setting up our class factory.

class SimpleClassFactory : public IClassFactory
 // *** IUnknown ***
 STDMETHODIMP QueryInterface(REFIID riid, void **ppv)
  if (riid == IID_IUnknown || riid == IID_IClassFactory) {
    *ppv = static_cast<IUnknown*>(this);
    return S_OK;
  *ppv = NULL;
  return 2;
  return 1;
 // *** IClassFactory ***
 STDMETHODIMP CreateInstance(IUnknown *punkOuter, REFIID riid, void **ppv)
    *ppv = NULL;
    if (punkOuter) return CLASS_E_NOAGGREGATION;
    SimpleDropTarget *pdt = new(nothrow) SimpleDropTarget();
    if (!pdt) return E_OUTOFMEMORY;
    HRESULT hr = pdt->QueryInterface(riid, ppv);
    return hr;
  if (!g_ppr) return E_FAIL; // server shutting down
  if (fLock) g_ppr->AddRef(); else g_ppr->Release();
  return S_OK;
SimpleClassFactory s_scf;

The Lock­Server call takes advantage of our
process reference object by forwarding lock and unlock
calls into the reference count of the process reference object.
This keeps our process running until the server is unlocked.

Remember that COM rules specify that the class factory itself
does not count as an outstanding COM object, so we don’t use
the same m_punkProcess trick that we did with
our drop target.
Instead, we just use a static object.

People who know how COM servers work wake up:
The COM server code is pretty much done.
Now we’re back to user interface programming.

The next part of the code is just copied from our scratch program,
with the following changes:

OnCreate(HWND hwnd, LPCREATESTRUCT lpcs)
    g_hwndChild = CreateWindow(
        TEXT("listbox"), NULL, WS_CHILD | WS_VISIBLE | WS_TABSTOP,
        0, 0, 0,0, hwnd, (HMENU)1, g_hinst, 0);
    return TRUE;

The list box is not an important part of the program.
We’ll just fill it with data to prove that we actually did something.

void OpenFilesFromDataObject(IDataObject *pdto)
 if (!g_hwndChild) { /* need to create a new main window */ }
                    -1, TYMED_HGLOBAL };
 if (SUCCEEDED(pdto->GetData(&fmte, &stgm))) {
  HDROP hdrop = reinterpret_cast<HDROP>(stgm.hGlobal);
  UINT cFiles = DragQueryFile(hdrop, 0xFFFFFFFF, NULL, 0);
  for (UINT i = 0; i < cFiles; i++) {
   TCHAR szFile[MAX_PATH];
   UINT cch = DragQueryFile(hdrop, i, szFile, MAX_PATH);
   if (cch > 0 && cch < MAX_PATH) {
    ListBox_AddString(g_hwndChild, szFile);

The Open­Files­From­Data­Object function does only
enough work to prove that it actually got the list of file names.
When we receive a data object from the simulated drop,
we retrieve the HDROP and enumerate the files in it.
For each file, we add it to the list box.

There’s some code I’ve not bothered to write: Namely, if
a request to open some files comes in after the user closed
our main window, we need to open a new main window.
(Exercise: How can this happen?)

Another difference between this program and real life is that in
real life, your Open­Files­From­Data­Object
would do some real work.
But wait,
if your function does any actual work,
you should just AddRef the data object and return,
so that the shell can return to interacting with the user.
If you stop to do a lot of work before returning, the shell will
lock up because it’s waiting for your drop to complete.

// Version of OpenFilesFromDataObject that is more
// appropriate for real life.
void OpenFilesFromDataObject(IDataObject *pdto)
 if (!g_hwndChild) { /* need to create a new main window */ }
 PostMessage(GetParent(g_hwndChild), WM_OPENFILES, 0,
 IDataObject *pdto = reinterpret_cast<IDataObject*>(lParam);
 ... rest of code from the original OpenFilesFromDataObject ...

In real life, you just AddRef the data object
and then post a message to finish processing it later.
The aim here is to release the shell thread as quickly as
When the posted message is received, we can
extract the information from the data object at our leisure.
People who know how COM servers work can go back to sleep now.

Finally, we hook up our class factories to the main program:

int WINAPI WinMain(HINSTANCE hinst, HINSTANCE hinstPrev,
                   LPSTR lpCmdLine, int nShowCmd)
    MSG msg;
    HWND hwnd;
    g_hinst = hinst;
    if (!InitApp()) return 0;
    if (SUCCEEDED(CoInitialize(NULL))) {/* In case we use COM */
        HRESULT hrRegister;
        DWORD dwRegisterCookie;
            ProcessReference ref;
            g_ppr = &ref;
            hrRegister = CoRegisterClassObject(CLSID_Scratch, &s_scf,
            hwnd = CreateWindow(
                TEXT("Scratch"),                /* Class Name */
                TEXT("Scratch"),                /* Title */
                WS_OVERLAPPEDWINDOW,            /* Style */
                CW_USEDEFAULT, CW_USEDEFAULT,   /* Position */
                CW_USEDEFAULT, CW_USEDEFAULT,   /* Size */
                NULL,                           /* Parent */
                NULL,                           /* No menu */
                hinst,                          /* Instance */
                0);                             /* No special parameters */
            if (CompareStringA(LOCALE_INVARIANT, NORM_IGNORECASE,
                 lpCmdLine, -1, "-Embedding", -1) != CSTR_EQUAL &&
                CompareStringA(LOCALE_INVARIANT, NORM_IGNORECASE,
                 lpCmdLine, -1, "/Embedding", -1) != CSTR_EQUAL) {
                /* OpenFilesFromCommandLine(); */
            ShowWindow(hwnd, nShowCmd);
            while (GetMessage(&msg, NULL, 0, 0)) {
            g_hwndChild = NULL;
        } // wait for process references to die
        g_ppr = NULL;
        if (SUCCEEDED(hrRegister)) {
    return 0;

After creating our process reference,
we register our class factory by calling
We do this even if not invoked by COM, because we want COM to
be able to find us once we’re up and running:
If the user runs the application manually and then double-clicks
an associated document, we want that document to be handed to us
rather than having COM launch another copy of the program.

After creating the window, we check if the command line is
-Embedding or /Embedding.
This is the magic command line switch which COM gives us
when we are being launched as a local server.
If we don’t have that switch, then we’re being launched
with a file name on our command line, so proceed with
“old school” command line parsing.
(I didn’t bother writing the
function since it is irrelevant to the topic.)

After our message loop exits, we clear the g_hwndChild
so Open­Files­From­Data­Object
knows that there is no
main window any more.
In real life, we’d have to create a new main window and restart
the message loop.

Once all outstanding COM objects and server locks and process
references are gone,
we can tear down the process.
We unregister the COM server (if we registered it)
so that COM won’t try to ask us to open any more documents.
(COM will instead launch a new copy of the program.)

And that’s it.

Oh wait, we also have to register this program so COM and the shell
can find us.

Registering the COM server is just a matter of setting the registry


You probably should also set a friendly name into
HKCR\CLSID\{...} so people will have
a clue what your server is for.

People who know how COM servers work wake up:
After we register our class with COM,
we can register it with the shell.
For demonstration purposes, we’ll make our command a secondary
verb on text files.


Wow, all we had to do was set two registry values and boom,
we can now accept files via drop target.
Multiselect a whole bunch of text files,
right-click them,
and then select “scratch”.
The shell sees that the verb is registered as a drop target,
so it calls Co­Create­Instance on the CLSID
you provided.
COM looks up the CLSID in the registry and finds the
path to your program.
Your program runs with the -Embedding flag,
registers its class factory, and awaits further instructions.
COM asks your class factory to create a drop target,
which it returns to the shell.
The shell then performs the simulated drop,
and when you get the IDropTarget::Drop,
your code springs into action and extracts all the files in the
data object.

Now that we have all this working, it’s just one more tiny
step to register your application’s drop target so that
it is invoked

when the user drops a group of files on the
EXE itself

(or on a shortcut to the EXE):

[HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\App Paths\scratch.exe]

With this additional registration, grab that bunch of files
and drop it on the scratch.exe icon.
Instead of passing all those files on the command line
(and possibly overflowing the command line limit),
the shell goes through the same procedure as it did with the
context menu to hand the list of files to your program
via the data object.

Nearly all of the work here was just managing the COM local server.
The parts that had to do with the shell were actually quite small.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

Follow Raymond   


Comments are closed.