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Why is the (x86) in Program Files (x86)?

Because it’s 32-bit?

On a 32-bit Microsoft Windows system you simply have a “Program Files” folder where all applications (which of course must all be 32-bit (or lower).

On a 64-bit Windows system you have both a “Program Files” (for 64-bit) and a “Program Files (x86)” (for 32-bit).

Pretty much all programmers know what this means… I think I do, but when I tried to explain what I thought it was to someone tonight I couldn’t believe how funny the words coming out of my mouth must have sounded… So I thought I’d post it here.

User: Why do I have these two folders – “Program Files” and “Program Files (x86")”?

Karl: That’s because you have a fast 64-bit machine. Since not all programs were written to run on your 64-bit Operating System (OS) Microsoft has “WOW” or Windows on Windows that lets 32-bit programs run on a 64-bit OS.

User: …uh… o..k..

Karl: You see, to keep the programs straight the convention is to put all the 32-bit programs into the “Program Files (x86)” folder and put all the 64-bit programs in “Program Files”.

When I work on programs I try to build them “Any CPU” so that they can run on both 32-bit machines or 64-bit machines. However, sometimes one needs to build for a specific machine. When you do that you build x86 for 32-bit Windows and you build x64 for 64-bit Windows.

Ok… I know that sounds strange. You must be thinking, “x86 sounds much better than x64 since it’s a bigger number.” I don’t know the full history, but I suspect that since the 8086, 80286, 80386, etc. CPUs or x86 CPUs were 32-bit, they named the folder after the chip rather than the fact it was 32-bit. Now most users don’t know about x86 chips or 32-bit operating systems, so I’m not sure what drove that decision.

User: Why don’t they just have “Program Files” for 32-bit on both, and put “Program Files 64-bit” on the 64-bit OS? Or perhaps “Program Files x64” since they seem to be so fond of the letter “x”.

Karl: Actually, I think they are hoping for the day when the 32-bit or “Program Files (x86)” goes away. When that happens, they’ll just be back to having a single “Program Files” folder.

Does that clear it up?

User: So the “Program Files (x86)” isn’t and x-tra folder that I can delete?

Karl: No. Deleting that would be a very bad idea.

User: ok…

Karl: (Way more than they probably wanted to know…)

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