In-Depth

Windows Vista: Learning To Play Nice

Despite Microsoft's efforts so far, incompatibilities still dog the new OS.

JC Warren is a network management specialist for a Seattle-based asset management company. His company tends to be a very early adopter of Microsoft technologies, but that changed when Windows Vista arrived. Why? The vendors for many of its business-critical applications say that using Vista will invalidate the company's support contracts. Warren has been told, "If you put Vista on a machine that runs our application, don't bother calling us." The vendors won't guarantee their programs if they're used on the Vista platform.

Vista, the long overdue successor to the now ubiquitous Windows XP, was released commercially on Jan. 30. Upon its release, Microsoft boasted that, among its other benefits, Vista worked with some 1.5 million devices and peripherals and a host of legacy applications. At its yearly financial analysts meeting in late July, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner offered a six-month update on the state of application compatibility at Vista's launch as well as at the six-month mark.

"On the application front, over 2,000 applications have earned the 'Works with Windows Vista' or the 'Certified for Windows Vista' logo," Turner said. "That's up from 650 at launch, so big, big improvements are getting made in this space every single day. Around 70 critical enterprise applications have been updated to be compatible since launch," he continued, pointing to applications from hardware and software vendors like Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks, Adobe Systems Inc., McAfee Inc., Symantec Corp., Citrix Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., Tivoli Software, SAP AG and IBM Corp.

For JC Warren and many other IT pros, though, Vista's hardware and application compatibility still has a long road to travel.

Anthony Ginger, an instructional support specialist at a community college in Southern California, has several complaints about Vista compatibility. "Our help desk app HelpSTAR crashes the Aero interface," Ginger writes in an e-mail. Other problems include the inability to directly manage servers due to the lack of a compatible administration pack, along with needing to purchase a new video card to use three monitors simultaneously.

Still Waiting for Vista Compatibility

Below is a partial list of some popular applications that aren't Windows Vista-compatible.

  • Ad-Aware spam-protection tool
  • Cisco Systems Inc.'s Security Agent
  • FileMaker Inc.'s Server
  • Novell Inc. iPrint
  • Novell ZENworks
  • Atrapoint LLC's MBA Toolkit financial software
  • Comodo Group's Free Firewall
  • Sunbelt Software's Personal Firewall 4
  • M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB Audio device

[At press time, these products did not work with Vista. That may have changed. Check the vendor's Web site to determine if a product is now compatible. -Ed.]

Vista does offer a "compatibility mode" that lets users run programs in environments similar to previous versions of Windows going back 12 years to Windows 95. In Ginger's case, that mode is purely hit or miss. "Various apps work in compatibility mode, some not at all," he writes.

To a degree, this should be expected. XP has been out for more than five years, while Vista still has that new-car smell. Given Microsoft's pronouncements about the clear superiority of Vista, along with its five-year development cycle that gave top-tier developers ample time to ramp up, the question is why some major business and consumer applications weren't ready to roll.

In a press release announcing Vista availability, Microsoft called Vista "the most significant product launch in Microsoft Corp.'s history." Chairman Bill Gates crowed: "Windows Vista ... will transform the way people work and play." Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also fed the hype machine, claiming that Vista "will have a dramatic impact on computing long-term."

Indeed, maybe it will. It's certainly had plenty of short-term impact on some environments -- but little of it good.

Early Disappointments
Linnie Gooch had high hopes for Vista, only to see them dashed. Gooch was running a pre-final version of Vista released to Volume Licensing customers on Nov. 30, 2006. "I installed Vista when it was released in early December, only to realize my brand-spanking-new laptop had no support for it. The manufacturer said they wouldn't support it until after the 'official' release," Gooch writes in an e-mail.

The problems didn't end there, according to Gooch, an IT security manager for a credit union. "I had numerous problems getting it to work with anything that wasn't Microsoft related. Soon, I just went back to XP. It works, and I don't have to hit 'Allow' 100 times a day. It's a complete waste of time. I'm sad to see that Microsoft worked so hard on [something that's] not working as well as they had hoped."

In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, condemning the product based on a handful of anecdotes is not offering a three-dimensional view of the story. Microsoft has consistently said it's working diligently to make Vista more compatible.

"We take exhaustive steps both internally, and by working directly with our partners, to address compatibility long before customers ever experience an issue," Microsoft says in an e-mail.

In that same e-mail, the company says its compatibility testing ran the gamut from 35,000 tests per week of the top consumer and enterprise apps, to deep engineering engagements with its business partners on Microsoft campuses around the world "That said, we recognize that not all applications and drivers in the industry were up-to-date by launch and that there have been some compatibility issues as a result," the statement reads.

Microsoft also ticks off a number of statistics that support its claims of Vista compatibility:

  • Market research firm NPD Group Inc., which tracks application compatibility, lists 48 of the top 50 consumer Windows applications selling at retail as compatible;
  • The latest versions of the most popular free downloadable apps, namely Adobe Reader, Shockwave and Apple Inc.'s iTunes, are compatible;
  • More than 60 major enterprise applications have moved to Windows Vista since its launch, including applications from Adobe, Citrix, Oracle, Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., LANDesk Software and IBM;
  • The top five security offerings from Symantec, McAfee, CA Inc., Trend Micro Inc. and F-Secure Corp. appear to have no compatibility issues;
  • Windows Vista now supports more than two million unique hardware IDs.

One site that has attempted to track Vista incompatibilities, based on user input, is www.ieXbeta.com, an independent Web site primarily about Microsoft beta software. ieXbeta set up a Wiki to accumulate information on Vista compatibility. As of the end of July, its list of software with minor Vista compatibility issues numbered 79 products, and the list of software with more serious compatibility issues stretched to 122 programs.

Another compatibility sore spot is in the area of specialized business apps. Chris King, IT manager for the Chico, Calif.-based construction company New Urban Builders, says that a mission-critical business app, BuilderMT, is incompatible with Vista. Worse yet, the manufacturer has yet to give him a date for when the software will be upgraded to work with Vista. The same situation exists with their accounting program, Timberline Office from Sage Software.

He's hardly alone. Warren, of the asset management company, says Vista won't work with a number of his company's critical programs, including its payroll app and an investment-tracking product.

Supporting Arguments
That anecdotal evidence is buttressed by findings in a recent Forrester Research Inc. study. The study, by analyst Benjamin Gray, talked about Vista migration plans with 45 IT managers. One of the most important reasons they were hesitating on the move to Vista was the lack of application compatibility.

Writes Gray: "Over the course of our discussions with IT professionals, we heard application-compatibility success rates that ranged from as low as 60 percent to as high as 90 percent when tested against Windows Vista. These figures naturally trended upward over time as more and more applications became certified for Windows Vista."

Gray, in his report, quotes the frustrations of one director of IT operations: "A lot of our enterprise applications aren't compatible with [Internet Explorer] IE 7, which is forcing me to squeeze more life into the corporate PCs as we get that fixed."

Beyond business apps, there is still work to be done in the area of consumer apps. King details some of his troubles. "Dreamweaver 8 won't even load in Vista. I've also had problems with Roxio Easy [Media] Creator 9. It's supposed to run on Vista and didn't." Officials from Adobe -- which owns Dreamweaver -- say the product is indeed compatible with Vista.

The Roxio situation has been one of the most aggravating for non-business Vista users. Roxio was even promoted as a Vista Premier launch partner, giving everyone the impression that if any app would be Vista compatible, it would be Roxio. To his chagrin, King discovered multiple compatibility issues that have continued to exist with Vista. Underlining the problem are the Roxio discussion boards and various Internet forums that have been filled with complaints.

This reporter, in fact, has a similar issue. When Vista boots the following message appears: "This driver is blocked due to compatibility issues." It lists the driver as "Sonic Solutions DLA" and the publisher as "Sonic Solutions." Sonic is the parent company of Roxio. A patch, however, has been issued for that error.

Still, other compatibility problems exist, particularly among laptops. Eddie Whetzel, an IT special projects manager in Maryland, has been using a Lenovo X60 tablet PC since March and still has several unresolved issues. "The problem with sleep/hibernate is that the tablet goes into a coma," he says. "At first, it was unable wake up from sleep/hibernate at all. The hard disk activity light and the wireless network lights were blinking for activity, and the charge power lights were lit, but the screen just never lit up." The Lenovo-issued patches have helped some, but the problem still surfaces, Whetzel says.

Internal Difficulties
Even Microsoft's own apps have issues with Vista. Whetzel reports he's had difficulty with Microsoft Word since upgrading from XP. "The problem with Word -- but not any of the other Office apps -- is that it's terribly slow, on the order of 30 seconds or so, to start or shut down," Whetzel states in an e-mail. "The swirling hourglass seems to take forever to disappear. Interestingly enough, this didn't happen with XP," he says.

Anita Metcalf, a systems engineer in Texas, says an Office compatibility problem caused her to ditch Vista. In an e-mail, she writes: "Used Vista -- got rid of Vista." She elaborates, stating that she was running Vista with Office 2007, but because Vista no longer stores credentials for Outlook, and because she has Outlook automatically download e-mail from several POP3 servers, she was getting prompted to type in her password non-stop.

"Apparently this was considered by Microsoft and it was decided that the impact would not be significant. Even for users on our company's network, it would be extremely annoying. I truly hope [Microsoft] comes up with a solution," Metcalf explains.

A Microsoft spokesman responded to Metcalf's complaint via e-mail: "We are not aware of this problem with Outlook; Outlook stores the credentials for its accounts [that] it is set up for."

Do the application compatibility problems with Vista pose a huge problem for Redmond in the sales channel? That's hard to determine at this point. Normally businesses begin a slow movement toward upgrading to the latest Microsoft desktop OS within a year or two of its release (and typically not until the first service pack drops). Consumers routinely won't upgrade their OSes. Instead, they prefer to get a new OS when they purchase a new computer.

While Microsoft brags it has sold more than 60 million Vista licenses as of June, signs are emerging that Vista sales aren't what Microsoft initially hoped for. In July, Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell said that the company changed its forecast of desktop OS revenues in fiscal year 2008, revising Vista's revenue down from 85 percent to 78 percent, and Windows XP's revenue up from 15 percent to 22 percent. That means Microsoft expects XP sales to be 50 percent stronger, and at the expense of Vista.

Offering further corroboration that Microsoft's initial forecast was too optimistic, market researcher Gartner Inc. stated in a report this spring: "Our market data suggests Vista has had very limited impact on PC demand or replacement activity."
Dell Inc. threw more cold water on Microsoft's rosy Vista outlook by deciding to re-offer XP on six of its computers in response to customer demand.

Although these signals don't necessarily foretell doom and gloom for Vista, it's clear that Microsoft needs to do everything it can to make Vista attractive to buyers, and an excellent place to start would be with markedly improved application compatibility. That's already happening, as witnessed by Microsoft COO Kevin Turner's commitment to continuing work on application compatibility.

Microsoft managed to roughly triple Vista's application compatibility within the first six months of its release. If it can continue that pace for a full year, Vista will be well on the way to the kind of industry adoption that XP enjoys. If not, and reports of application incompatibility continue to spread, Vista could have a rough time ahead.

More Information

Vista Application Compatibility Resources

Also, don't forget the benefits of virtualization. Problems with Vista can be overcome by running apps in a virtual machine with XP loaded. The two most popular are Microsoft's free Virtual PC, and VMware Inc.'s Workstation (starting at $189).

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