The Dating Game: How Compatible Are You With Vista?

When Microsoft released Windows Vista commercially on Jan. 30, the launch, while hailed by Redmond, carried with it a good deal of uncertainty. New, stricter security technologies, specifically User Account Control, threatened to cause problems with many applications. Application compatibility, too, is a major source of concern with any new OS.

Before companies and consumers take the technical and financial plunge that OS migration or replacement represents, they need to know that their old apps will work, and that new apps are appearing and being developed that will take advantage of the OS's new abilities. Now, a quarter of a year after Vista hit the market, is it meeting -- or dashing -- expectations?

The answer is somewhere in between. At its launch, there were still significant concerns about several major anti-virus products that weren't Vista compatible. That was a huge issue, according to analyst Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm. As an IT pro or consumer, he said, "The first piece of software I look at as I'm waiting to switch is anti-virus utilities."

The question, then, is why several virus vendors weren't ready, when Vista had been in development for five years. Cherry has an answer. "On the surface, it appeared Microsoft gave them plenty of time, and they shouldn't have been surprised that it was coming. But Microsoft made a mockery of the betas and release candidates, making changes very late in the process. You don't want a lot of substantial changes, so [many ISVs] didn't start developing until very late in the process. ISVs want to know when [a product is] feature complete, when it's stable -- when they finalize it."

Microsoft responded via e-mail. Tom Caputo, Microsoft's group product manager for the Windows Client Group, stated: "With Windows Vista, we provided partners more time to prepare than with any previous version of Windows, with five months between Release Candidate 1 and the consumer launch. RC1, released August 2006, was considered very good in all aspects of quality and functionality, and was very close to RTM quality in terms of compatibility."

Those assurances, though, failed to make the impact Microsoft undoubtedly hoped for, according to Benjamin Gray, an analyst with Forrester Research. "In speaking with our enterprise clients, I've found that application compatibility is often cited as the No. 2 reason to not yet roll out Windows Vista into the corporate environment -- behind hardware compatibility," Gray said in an e-mail.

Microsoft challenges that perception, however. "On a broad scale, there are millions of developers creating applications that run on Windows," said Caputo. "We have a strong worldwide partner ecosystem made up of hundreds of thousands of people who are actively engaged with the Windows Vista platform. The device ecosystem is also strong; Windows Vista currently supports 1.9 million devices."

That 1.9 million figure is 500,000 higher than when Vista was released in January, and the number's growing: Dave Wascha, Microsoft's director of partner platform marketing, has said that Microsoft engineers start working on drivers for any devices on which they receive at least 500 complaints.

So how does this compare with previous OS launches? Gray said Vista came out more compatible than any others. "Vista was more customer- and partner-friendly than Windows 2000 and Windows XP because there was earlier access to more test builds; deployment tools were released sooner (i.e., ACT, BDD, etc.); there were over 2.25 million beta downloads (compared to just 0.5 million for XP); the time between RTM and launch was longer (giving ISVs more time to finalize any final tweaks); and at launch, there were 28,000 device drivers available for download (compared to just 12,000 for Windows XP)."

Market researcher NPD also bolstered that point, stating that 48 out of the top 50 consumer applications work with Vista. One of the most ubiquitous programs of all, however -- Apple, Inc.'s iTunes -- just had the final compatibility update released last week, on May 8, and many users of NVIDIA graphics cards are still screaming about compatibility, thanks to Vista's new graphics stack. In all, though, the roar has been kept to a minimum, and it appears Microsoft will end up taking less flak about compatibility issues with Vista than any previous desktop OS. Let's hope the trend continues with Longhorn Server, due out at the end of 2007 or early in 2008.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.