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Keyboard Basics

You've probably already surmised how a Windows program gets keyboard input: Keyboard input is delivered to your program's window procedures in the form of messages. Indeed, when first learning about messages, the keyboard is an obvious example of the type of information that messages might deliver to applications.

There are eight different messages that Windows uses to indicate various keyboard events. This may seem like a lot, but (as we'll see) your program can safely ignore at least half of them. Also, in most cases, the keyboard information encoded in these messages is probably more than your program needs. Part of the job of handling the keyboard is knowing which messages are important and which are not.

Ignoring the Keyboard

Although the keyboard is often the primary source of user input in Windows programs, your program does not need to act on every keyboard message it receives. Windows handles many keyboard functions itself.

For instance, you can usually ignore keystrokes that pertain to system functions. These keystrokes generally involve the Alt key. You do not need to monitor these actual keystrokes because Windows notifies a program of the effect of the keystrokes. (A program can monitor the keystrokes itself if it wants to, however.) The keystrokes that invoke a program's menu come through a window's window procedure, but they are usually passed on to DefWindowProc for default processing. Eventually, the window procedure gets a message indicating that a menu item has been selected. This is generally all the window procedure needs to know. (Menus are covered in Chapter 10.)

Many Windows programs use keyboard accelerators to invoke common menu items. The accelerators usually involve the Ctrl key in combination with a function key or a letter key (for example, Ctrl-S to save a file). These keyboard accelerators are defined in a program's resource script along with a program's menu, as we'll see in Chapter 10. Windows translates these keyboard accelerators into menu command messages. You don't have to do the translation yourself.

Dialog boxes also have a keyboard interface, but programs usually do not need to monitor the keyboard when a dialog box is active. The keyboard interface is handled by Windows, and Windows sends messages to your program about the effects of the keystrokes. Dialog boxes can contain edit controls for text input. These are generally small boxes in which the user types a character string. Windows handles all the edit control logic and gives your program the final contents of the edit control when the user is done. See Chapter 11 for more on dialog boxes.

Edit controls don't have to be limited to a single line, and they don't have to be located only in dialog boxes. A multiline edit control in your program's main window can function as a rudimentary text editor. (This is shown in the POPPAD programs in Chapters 9, 10, 11, and 13.) And Windows even has a fancier rich-text edit control that lets you edit and display formatted text. (See /Platform SDK/User Interface Services/Controls/Rich Edit Controls.)

You'll also find that when structuring your Windows programs, you can use child window controls to process keyboard and mouse input to deliver a higher level of information back to the parent window. Accumulate enough of these controls and you'll never have to be bothered with processing keyboard messages at all.

Who's Got the Focus?

Like all personal computer hardware, the keyboard must be shared by all applications running under Windows. Some applications might have more than one window, and the keyboard must be shared by all the windows within the application.

As you'll recall, the MSG structure that a program uses to retrieve messages from the message queue includes a hwnd field. This field indicates the handle of the window that is to receive the message. The DispatchMessage function in the message loop sends that message to the window procedure associated with the window for which the message is intended. When a key on the keyboard is pressed, only one window procedure receives a keyboard message, and this message includes a handle to the window that is to receive the message.

The window that receives a particular keyboard event is the window that has the input focus. The concept of input focus is closely related to the concept of the active window. The window with the input focus is either the active window or a descendant window of the active window—that is, a child of the active window, or a child of a child of the active window, and so forth.

The active window is usually easy to identify. It is always a top-level window—that is, its parent window handle is NULL. If the active window has a title bar, Windows highlights the title bar. If the active window has a dialog frame (a form most commonly seen in dialog boxes) instead of a title bar, Windows highlights the frame. If the active window is currently minimized, Windows highlights its entry in the task bar by showing it as a depressed button.

If the active window has child windows, the window with the input focus can be either the active window or one of its descendants. The most common child windows are controls such as push buttons, radio buttons, check boxes, scroll bars, edit boxes, and list boxes that appear in dialog boxes. Child windows are never themselves active windows. A child window can have the input focus only if it is a descendent of the active window. Child window controls indicate that they have the input focus generally by displaying a flashing caret or a dotted line.

Sometimes no window has the input focus. This is the case if all your programs have been minimized. Windows continues to send keyboard messages to the active window, but these messages are in a different form from keyboard messages sent to active windows that are not minimized.

A window procedure can determine when its window has the input focus by trapping WM_SETFOCUS and WM_KILLFOCUS messages. WM_SETFOCUS indicates that the window is receiving the input focus, and WM_KILLFOCUS signals that the window is losing the input focus. I'll have more to say about these messages later in this chapter.

Queues and Synchronization

As the user presses and releases keys on the keyboard, Windows and the keyboard device driver translate the hardware scan codes into formatted messages. However, these messages are not placed in an application's message queue right away. Instead, Windows stores these messages in something called the system message queue. The system message queue is a single message queue maintained by Windows specifically for the preliminary storage of user input from the keyboard and the mouse. Windows will take the next message from the system message queue and place it in an application's message queue only when a Windows application has finished processing a previous user input message.

The reasons for this two-step process—storing messages first in the system message queue and then passing them to the application message queue—involves synchronization. As we just learned, the window that is supposed to receive keyboard input is the window with the input focus. A user can be typing faster than an application can handle the keystrokes, and a particular keystroke might have the effect of switching focus from one window to another. Subsequent keystrokes should then go to another window. But they won't if the subsequent keystrokes have already been addressed with a destination window and placed in an application message queue.

Keystrokes and Characters

The messages that an application receives from Windows about keyboard events distinguish between keystrokes and characters. This is in accordance with the two ways you can view the keyboard.

First, you can think of the keyboard as a collection of keys. The keyboard has only one key labeled "A." Pressing that key is a keystroke. Releasing that key is also considered a keystroke. But the keyboard is also an input device that generates displayable characters or control characters. The "A" key can generate several different characters depending on the status of the Ctrl, Shift, and Caps Lock keys. Normally, the character is a lowercase "a." If the Shift key is down or Caps Lock is toggled on, the character is an uppercase "A." If Ctrl is down, the character is a Ctrl-A (which has meaning in ASCII but in Windows is probably a keyboard accelerator if anything). On some keyboards, the "A" keystroke might be preceded by a dead-character key or by Shift, Ctrl, or Alt in various combinations. The combinations could generate a lowercase or uppercase letter with an accent mark, such as à, á, â, ã, Ä, or Å.

For keystroke combinations that result in displayable characters, Windows sends a program both keystroke messages and character messages. Some keys do not generate characters. These include the shift keys, the function keys, the cursor movement keys, and special keys such as Insert and Delete. For these keys, Windows generates only keystroke messages.