Vista Compatibility: What Does Microsoft Owe Us?

By David Morgenstern  |  Posted 2006-09-08

Vista Compatibility: What Does Microsoft Owe Us?

Despite the rosy outlook sounded by Windows Vista true believers, the compatibility picture for Vista is blurry at best. How Microsofts next-generation operating system will deal with the data and apps of previous generations must be near the top of the transition checklist for IT managers.

At the same time, other voices with long experience in the industry ask if the Vista rollout really has to be done this way? They predict that the day may be coming when customers stand up and yell that theyre not going to take this anymore.

In a recent column, I looked at the differences between Apple Computers rollout of Mac OS X and Redmonds plan for Vista. The pricing strategy behind OS X was vastly different than Windows, but even more striking was the concept behind the move.

To ensure that customers workflows would be maintained and to ease their minds over the transition, Apple shipped the new OS X along with the older Mac OS 9. It was up to users to decide whether their workflows could go forward in OS X and its emulation environment for older software. If not, customers could boot into Mac OS 9. This choice was offered for more than a year and a half following the initial release of OS X v1.0.

Read here about how Vistas release in Europe will be delayed.

While most readers responded that they would take their time in moving to Vista—a good many of them offering some form of "forget about it"—others said we should all just get with the plan.

"Vista has a compatibility mode for old apps (as did XP, but Vistas is better)," reader Patrick Chefalo said. "If you have problems running an application in the beta, Vista notices and asks you if youd like to re-run it in compatibility mode. If it works, it asks you to add it to a list of apps permanently in compatibility mode. The list is available for inspection."

In addition, Chefalo pointed to the bundling of the forthcoming Virtual PC 2007 with Vista Ultimate as an assist for transition. "Microsoft offers Virtual PC for free now. You can host (if you have sufficient RAM and processor resources) a guest OS, such as 2000 or 98, on a Vista or XP box," he said.

This virtualization approach is a hot topic in the Vista community. For example, in a recent post, Vista tester Brandon LeBlanc talked about dual-booting in Windows and of running Virtual PC 2004 with the latest beta.

Of course, the performance of these compatibility layers and virtualization solutions in actual workflows remains to be seen. As we discovered with the transition to Windows XP SP2, the real world can interfere with the hype. Theres a world of difference (and just two letters) between "if it works," as Chefalo said, and "it works."

According to eWEEK Labs review of Vista RC1, the migration path to Microsofts next-gen OS may be a rough ride. Click here to read more.

Where is Microsofts list of compatible and incompatible applications as it provided for Windows XP SP2? Certainly, with driver incompatibilities, a rewritten security stack and new user interface, Vista will require software developers to update many programs. Customers need to know what is working now in order to budget for a transition and perhaps to put some pressure on ISVs and consultants for a timeline.

Both Microsoft and Apple could take a lesson from IBM on the subject of OS transitions and compatibility, according to M. Carl Gehr, mainframe systems analyst and developer with the Edge Information Group of Cincinnati.

"In general, user software (versus system-support software) written for the original IBM OS/360 back in 1965-66 will likely run with no changes at all on the latest z/OS operating system and the latest System z hardware being delivered today," he wrote in response to the column.

IBM recently started an academic initiative to boost the place of its z/OS in the college curricula. Click here to read more.

Even more significant, Gehr continued, is that IBM delivered downward compatibility for applications running in the LE (Language Environment) run-time support.

"That is, you can develop and test an application in the latest level of LE and as long as you do not use features of the hardware or operating system that were not available on the old levels, that code will run just fine on the old hardware and software," he said.

This compatibility goes back to 1998 levels and even before, Gehr noted. "Now, this is the right way to deliver upgrades," he concluded.

Next Page: A better way for downward compatibility.

Better Downward Compatibility

This expectation of increased downward compatibility may be increasing for all segments of the market, warned Rodolfo Martinez, the chair of the CIS and Game Simulation Programming programs at DeVry University, in Arlington, Va.

He suggested that OS vendors should never drop support for functionality, regardless of a feature or services popularity (or a lack of the same), until an equivalent or better version of that functionality is installed in the customer base.

"Those vendors that drop OS functionality of older versions—Apple included—will see their products reputation severely damaged in light of what Unix has accomplished on this matter. There are Unix scripts designed in the 1980s still providing value-added transformations to their customers," Martinez said.

He noted that computers increasingly do more than support various functions in an enterprise. Rather, computers now have become the main value-add for many companies and industries, transforming raw data into finished products.

"Consequently, customers that depend on computers to generate their products would perceive very negatively a new version of the OS when it discontinues a capability critical for these value-added functions," Martinez said.

Still, I asked Martinez if there wasnt a big difference between the expectations for compatibility between mainframe customers and those using a general-purpose computing platform such as Vista?

Martinez responded that previously such downward compatibility wasnt "part of the deal," or at least vendors and developers didnt perceive this goal as such at the time. But times have changed, both for users and developers, he suggested.

"However, from the last few years on, customers refusal to upgrade may be a symptom that in their minds they are making it part of the deal. It will be wise for vendors to pay attention," he concluded.

So, the din of resistance to Vista upgrading isnt the result of some amorphous fear of change on the part of Windows users. Rather, its from the calculation of potential harm to ones data, workflow, productivity and business. Even if that "business" is small. Or even if the user is a consumer.

Add to this resistance, the actual cost of the Vista upgrade, the cost of any needed hardware updates and the time that will be spent (lost) performing the update.

Finally, as Martinez points out, an increasing portion of the user base now considers at least some part of the update experience as an unnecessary ordeal, if not all of it.

Software updates, which were considered a mark of progress for a platform, have now become a burden and a "bad thing."

The other day, I upgraded to Quicken 2007 for the Mac. It uses a new file format incompatible with my older version. While I went ahead and clicked the Accept button for the new licensing agreement, I admit that my stomach gave a warning twitch. Deep down in my unconscious, I was unhappy about this update, even though I knew its all for the best. Or so I hope.

Can we continue to have progress in the PC industry and yet provide a better range of downward compatibility? Some with experience in the mainframe market say yes. Were all working through the current answer: No.

What do you think? Are software updates becoming too much of a burden? Or should downward compatibility move higher on the list of customer concerns for vendors? Let us know here.

David Morgenstern brings to eWEEK a long and varied career in the computer industry. Known for his coverage of microprocessor-based and high-performance storage, this award-winning editor has directed publications in the professional content creation and digital asset management areas. As a marketing manager, hes worked for monitor and digital video startups. Some may remember him "in the days" as the editor of Ziff Davis MacWEEK. He can be reached at

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