While most of us just see normal file and folder names on our Windows systems, other people may have encountered something a bit more unexpected – file and folder names with a dot in front of them. Why does this happen? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answer to a very curious reader’s question.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Photo courtesy of Domiriel (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader Niko Bellic wants to know why some Windows file and folder names have a dot in front of them:

For example, in the My Documents directory on my Windows system I have found the following folders:

  • .ssh
  • .subversion

Is this some sort of naming convention that I am unaware of?

Why do some Windows file and folder names have a dot in front of them?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor grawity has the answer for us:

This naming convention comes from Unix-like operating systems (such as Linux or OSX) where it means a hidden file or directory. It works anywhere, but its primary use is to hide configuration files in your home directory (i.e. ~/.cache/ or ~/.plan) They are frequently called dot files.

Dot files could, in a way, be called the traditional Unix equivalent to the AppData directory on Windows. Meanwhile, many Linux programs are being changed to follow the XDG base directory specification, moving their configuration to ~/.config/ and other data to ~/.cache/ and ~/.local/share/. This makes it more similar to AppData\Roaming and AppData\Local.

You have these .ssh and .subversion directories on Windows because you have used some programs (specifically, OpenSSH and Subversion) that have been ported to use Windows system APIs rather than POSIX ones, but have not been adjusted for some other Windows conventions.

Sometimes this adaptation is skipped intentionally to make life easier for people who use Unix-like environments such as Cygwin on their Windows systems. For example, Cygwin installs the standard set of Unix-like tools like ls, which ignores the Windows hidden flag and only honors the dot file names. It is also easier to synchronize configurations between an individual’s Windows and Linux/BSD/OSX computers if it is shared in the same location.

These files are typically found in the user’s home directory (i.e. /home/name/.ssh on Linux or C:\Users\name\.ssh on Windows 7 and later). It is quite rare for them to be put in the Documents or My Documents subdirectories (they do not contain documents after all).

As Rob Pike writes on Google+, this was an accidental feature:

Long ago, as the design of the Unix file system was being worked out, the entries . and .. appeared in order to make navigation easier. I am not sure, but I believe .. went in during Version 2’s rewrite when the file system became hierarchical (it had a very different structure early on). When one typed ls, however, these files appeared, so either Ken or Dennis added a simple test to the program. It was in assembler then, but the code in question was equivalent to something like this:

  • if (name[0] == ‘.’) continue;

This statement was a little shorter than what it should have been, which is:

  • if (strcmp(name, “.”) == 0 || strcmp(name, “..”) == 0) continue;

But hey, it was easy and two things resulted.

First, a bad precedent was set. A lot of other lazy programmers introduced bugs by making the same simplification. Actual files beginning with periods are often skipped when they should be counted.

Second, and much worse, the idea of a hidden or dot file was created. As a consequence, more lazy programmers started dropping files into everyone’s home directory. I do not have much software installed on the computer I am using to type this, but my home directory has about one hundred dot files and I do not even know what most of them are or whether they are still needed. Every file name evaluation that goes through my home directory is slowed down by this accumulated sludge.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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