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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Reader Comments:

Mon, May 5, 2008 mm ohio

Corporate greed and power breeds incompatibility, neither smart nor green. What a sad commentary on intelligent people. Sad indeed.

Thu, Nov 15, 2007 cyd usa

I'm running Vista Ultimate on a notebook - I'm a software developer and this machine is my workhorse - I've had NO problems at all. Office works great, Visual Studio, Oracle, SQL Server, a bevy of shareware utilities, some of which I've had since Win 95. One thing I have had trouble with is Roxio - on my old XP machine. The new version 10 installed successfully on Vista, but I've not had a chance to use it much. Seems to me before pointing the finger at That Evil Microsoft at the get-go, one should take a look at all those third-party software vendors and realize that it takes time and effort to change software to accommodate new platforms. Yes, they've had a while to gear up, but the consuming public seems to believe that as soon as a new OS is launched all the the third-party vendors should launch at the same time - that's just not feasible for many. They have to wait for the final product and then make their modifications just as the end-user must.

Wed, Nov 7, 2007 pHaZm USA

Sounds like a lot of newbies posting here. Has to be newbies as an experienced computer user would know how it works with a new OS - and any new OS for that matter. Vista is not like XP - this has been well known since Vista was first mentioned by Microsoft. Having been around this business since the roll out of XP, Win2k, ME, 98, I can say - all those OSs has same issues as Vista does now compared to XP. That's how it works with a new OS - if you haven't figured that out by now - give it up - it's hopeless. And I just have to say - Microsoft doesn't have much to do with 3rd. party drivers - that's the vendors responsibility. They send a driver to MS and MS tests it. It don't work - it don't get WHQL and goes back to the vendor. Just though this would help those without the knowledge of more experienced in the business.

Fri, Nov 2, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

Along with thousands of other users, from what I'm reading on the community support pages, my email is stuck in Outbox and cannot be sent or even deleted. I receive emails okay. Why hasn't this system-wide problem been solved by now? I much preferred Windows XP. Vista is NOT an improvement.

Wed, Oct 17, 2007 frankie nyc

Vista simply is not ready for prime time. With our testing and actual usage in a world wide corporate networked environment. It simply doesn't have enough "umph". The pc's tested were Dell workstations 450, 470 and 490's. Each machine had over two gigs of ram. These pc's are powerful. But the more tasks you do the slower it gets. If its a dedicated to simply reading mail or surfing the web. Life is good. But who does just that at work. It's a shame. Vista is really good looking. Provided you keep the vista interface and not switch to windows classic in order to get more speed from the machine.
Using Xp with Vista transform pack isn't such a bad idea. If you like the "Vista" look.

Sat, Oct 6, 2007 n Vanderslice Anonymous

I find it very frustrating that Windows has released a new operating system that for the most part is not compatible with alot of the other software that is compatible with Windows XP. When XP came out, almost all of the software that was compatible with Windows 98, even windows 95, worked with XP. Now it seems that with the exception of Dell, you can't get a computer without Vista. It's bad enough to shell out the money for a new computer, now I have to replace all the software as well? Much of it is stuff that I need and does not yet have Vista compatible versions. While the writer of the article blames the software manufacturers for not getting their act in gear sooner, I blame Microsoft for creating a new and supposedly exclusive operating system that is going to force many people to replace much of their other software as well. While it's great that Microsoft is doing all they are doing now to fix the problems, but this is an issue that should have been done BEFORE they released Vista. I've got at least two major programs that are not on any compatability list for vista, and will cost me more than the computer to replace. I'd go for a Dell, but none of the units they offer with XP have a hard drive larger than 80 gb. At 60 Gb on the current laptop, I'm just about maxxed out on space.

Fri, Oct 5, 2007 Cliff Brown Raleigh, NC

Here’s a news flash; Vista works fine. So did all of the flavors of XP, 2000, 98. 95, 3.X, 2.0 and MS-DOS! The recurring issue seems to be vendor software, hardware manufacturers and home-grown application designers that lag behind in developing applications and hardware drivers that are compatible to each new release of their respective products, yet somehow expect their products to miraculously perform to specifications in a new OS environment.

While I find it strange that even some of Microsoft's own application are having operational difficulties with Vista (Windows Live Messenger w/ Vista Ultimate for one!), I appreciate your comments regarding the finger pointing in multiple directions, including hardware and software vendors. As with other operating systems, the idea of creating an OS to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of applications and hardware varieties in use today is idyllic indeed. Microsoft may appear to possess unlimited resources in R&D to build an operating system tailored to run commercial and consumer products, but in reality, the company relies on both software application designers as well as hardware manufacturers to make some effort to align their products with such a broad target market.

For some odd reason, Microsoft believes that the XP line is in its declining stage, yet my experiences show that many prefer to stay with the XP line before switching to Vista. While XP sales may be declining, the OS is solid in a maturity stage, not only in corporate use, but also in the public arena. Like the 2000 line, XP is very popular, and Microsoft should seriously reconsider extending XP's product support.

As you stated in the article, Vista was in a very lengthy development cycle, perhaps longer than any previous OS release from Microsoft. Now, ten months into the introduction phase, I still encounter many hard-headed developers that believe that it is Microsoft's responsibility to provide an OS with capabilities to run their 'legacy' products. The questions become: What were they doing while Vista was in a 5-year development phase? Microsoft went through great pains to release beta versions of Vista to many of these corporate developers through channels such as MSDN and TechNet memberships. Was there a lack of feedback to Microsoft from these beta and early-release recipients that justifies why the OS is problematic at the corporate level?

To illustrate, if a company like Adobe agrees to package its reader software along with a computer manufacturer pushing out Vista, what possible excuse can Adobe have for its late release of a Flash player that is compatible with Vista? How can a world-wide computer manufacturer such as Acer release laptop computers that are advertised to be Windows WHQL-ready, only to include a integrated web cam that complains after the system is upgraded to Vista? Additionally, many of my customers’ complaints about IE7 are associated with third-party add-ins that causes the browser to behave the way it does.

Before we kick Vista to the curb, let (once again) give these hardware/software/firmware laggards a chance to catch up and join the program.

Thu, Oct 4, 2007 Kenny James Japan

What I'd really like to know is what Ballmer and his cronies say every time their Vista PCs choke. I have a new Dell with Vista Ultimate (the ultimate joke!), Core Duo, 2GBs of memory and another two on ReadyBoost, and still have to close browser windows etc. to get enough juice for very simple tasks. And yes, just like with XP, I find I have to reboot at least every other day to retrieve a semblance of high performance, though it soon disappears. At least XP was refreshing. Vista has been a pain right from the start.

Tue, Oct 2, 2007 JohnB UK

Was forced to have VISTA business on a Dell Laptop a while back (another week and they were offering XP Pro again!). Right out of the box got the Sonic incompatability message when booting, wouldn't work with the older version of Outlook which is the company standard, F-secure only had a BETA version which had to keep being reloaded, my backup software needed .NET v1.1 and it wouldn't load even after removing .NET 3, constant asking for permission to run messages (security is useless if it persuades you to turn it off!), even on a fast machine with 1Gb of memory Office apps took an age to load.
It lasted a month and then I formated the disk and re-installed XP Pro - we now have a nice well-behaved and fast Laptop, OK it doesn't look quite as pretty but it's much more productive. Microsoft seem to have forgotton that changing versions in business can be a pain and the lack of backward compatability even with Microsoft legacy applications is a serious ommision - Vista seems to be aimed more at the Home user entertainment market.

Tue, Oct 2, 2007 mm Anonymous

Microsoft is looking more and more like the Titanic steaming full ahead into history.

Mon, Oct 1, 2007 Anonymous Anonymous

As far as my home office, Vista is a disaster. The money machine at Microsoft has so segmented the OS that my new laptops with Home Premium can not communicate with a Win 98SE print server. The overall productive network throughput has dropped by 35%. If I new a way to get my money back or get XP Pro in place of Vista, I would leap at the opportunity.
Theonly truly heartening thing is that my firm (approx 2000 seats) is evaluating Linux as an alternative.

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