Compatibility Issues Dog XP

Next version of windows may have fewer apps able to run on it.

The application compatibility monster is rearing its ugly head again as Microsoft Corp. moves closer to the launch of Windows XP late this year.

As was the case when Microsoft upgraded users from Windows 3.x to 95/98 and then to Windows 2000, software developers and users are finding that what once ran on previous versions wont run well—or at all—on the new XP platform.

ISVs and XP beta testers say much work remains. A large number of applications have yet to be tested and certified, and issues are cropping up with existing applications, particularly those written for DOS. Applications written for the 9x code base (Windows 95, 98 and Millennium Edition), rather than the NT base of XP, and that do not yet work on Windows 2000 will also be troublesome.

"Many of these users will find that things like their older digital camera drivers and scanners wont work right in XP," said a Midwestern ISV who works closely with Microsoft and is testing Windows XP. "Most people dont realize how many DOS device drivers are still in use and how many average users are still using DOS applications. XP is not at all DOS-based."

In addition, applications such as Adobe Systems Inc.s Photoshop or Microsoft Word 2000 cannot fully take advantage of XPs Luna user interface, he said. "Part of the application has the new Luna look, and the other half looks like Windows 95 when run," he said. But, he added, fixing this could pose a challenge as software developers are unlikely to rewrite apps for cosmetic reasons.

In the months leading up to the February 2000 launch of Windows 2000, Microsoft ran into problems on the certification front. Software vendors claimed then that the company set the testing bar too high, resulting in few applications qualifying as "certified" by the time the operating system launched.

Dick Sullivan, vice president of solutions and integration at IBM, in Somers, N.Y., said this will likely be the case with XP as well. The XP certification process will remain onerous and expensive for server and client applications, Sullivan said.

In addition, once an ISV has ported an application to XP, there could be problems running that release on earlier platforms, forcing developers to maintain versions of an application for multiple platforms. "For small application providers, any additional work or cost becomes really problematic," Sullivan said.

Figures from International Data Corp. show that of the total Windows installed base, as of last year, 44 percent ran Windows 98, 33 percent ran Windows 95, 22 percent had either Windows NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Professional, and 1 percent had Windows ME.

But some XP testers are more upbeat. One, who is based in the Southeast and requested anonymity, is pleased with Beta 2 of the software, even though he said a few minor glitches exist, such as with Photoshop Version 6, where the system had to be set not to use more than 30 percent of system memory. "Almost everything I have works fine," the beta tester said. "But XP is more memory hungry than Windows 2000 and made less RAM available. But now Ive bumped up my RAM, and it works fine."

While Microsoft is offering an emulation environment in XP for some of the older applications, Shawn Sanford, group product manager for the Windows client, in Redmond, Wash., acknowledged that emulation does not work for every application. And applications that do work in 95/98 mode will not be able to take advantage of the new features and the new user "experience" Microsoft is touting in XP, Sanford said.

Microsoft and ISVs have their work cut out for them in preparing for the year-end launch. Microsoft told IDC analysts that it had tested 1,000 Windows applications for compatibility. "But, for a company that has prided itself on some 50,000 Windows apps, testing so few seems to be cutting it very short. They should be further along in the process by now," said IDC analyst Al Gillen, in Framingham, Mass.

Microsoft has been stepping up its compatibility efforts recently, sending ISVs a 30-page draft document on application compatibility. "Theres a long application compatibility checklist as to how to make your applications XP compliant. There are at least 20 things that we need to change or check," said one ISV, who requested anonymity.

Microsoft had little comment on the issue. "All of the details are still confidential, but having one code base makes it easy for us to get a lot more momentum than we have ever had," said Brian Valentine, Microsofts senior vice president for Windows.