Playing by Vistas Rules

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-12-04 Print this article Print

Developers must learn to live within new limits

There are detailed guidelines that developers can follow to ensure their compatibility with Microsofts forthcoming Windows Vista. Many of those instructions can usefully be condensed to one simple statement: This operating system is large and in charge.

PC programmers have spent two decades developing bad habits along with their clever applications. The PCs first decade gave developers direct access to hardware, a difficult habit to break; the second decade gave them nearly as free a rein with a better-managed but still single-user machine, on which the user almost always had administrator powers.

At Microsofts Los Angeles developer conference in September 2005, Microsoft engineer Robert Villahermosa showed a series of charts with the memorable title "Top Five Ways to Ensure Your Application Will Be Incompatible."

The specifics of his warnings included re--specting the Windows registry—applications must no longer treat it as a "private playground," Villahermosa said—and respecting the operating systems role in maintaining knowledge and control of system configuration.

Developers must learn, for example, Vistas new conventions for interrogating hardware to avoid confusing the parameters of a virtual machine with the real machinery behind it.

Villahermosa also warned against any hard-coding of file or directory locations, and against the placement of application data in the directory that contains the applications executable code.

In addition, Vista applications must anticipate their possible use on machines with multiple users who maintain different application customization settings and separate histories of state.

This also applies to applications running on Windows XP, but developers have been able to get away with being casual about this practice because most XP systems have been running with administrator privileges all the time. User expectations for good behavior will rise as Vista shifts the center of mass from administrator accounts to standard user accounts.

Learning to live within those limits seems likely to be the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg of potential compatibility issues with Vista.

eWeek Labs has watched a family spend the last year in an XP environment under a discipline of user accounts for everyone, including Dad, except when installing applications or performing software updates. The resulting catalog of failure modes has been long and astonishing, including such weirdness as refusing to display correct application-specific fonts unless administrator powers were provided.

Readers of eWeek have also reported to us such outrageous episodes as applications that merely print courier service mailing labels but that "absolutely, positively" wont run except in an administrator account. In the Vista regime, that absolutely, positively will not do.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

Vista Apps Require Developer Deference

Legacy habits of assuming system ownership wont get past Vistas controls

* Respect the registry Global data structures belong to the system, not to applications

* Accept abstraction Follow system conventions for file locations and hardware queries

* Pass up privileges Work gracefully within the limits of a user (not an administrator) account

Source: eWEEK Labs

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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