Mind The Vista Gap: Why Some Key Windows Apps Still Aren't Compatible

The big stumbling block: Updating applications for Vista is a more complex task for software developers than was revising programs for the move from Windows NT and ME to Windows XP in 2001.
Windows Vista is selling well, despite the lingering compatibility issues. Microsoft recently said it sold 20 million Windows Vista licenses in the first month of availability -- more than double the number of Windows XP licenses that were sold in the first two months after XP hit the market. But some analysts noted that the PC market itself has more than doubled since Windows XP debuted, a fact that makes the official sales numbers not as impressive as they might seem at first blush.

The fact is, compatibility issues have initially caused some large potential customers to think twice about moving to Windows Vista. The Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, may pass on upgrading its 45,000 desktop and laptop computers from Windows XP to Vista in part because of such concerns. "We're exploring the cost to deploy this in our environment, but when you consider the incompatibilities with previous versions it needs a lot more study," said Dave Bowen, CIO of the FAA.

Among other things, Bowen said a number of the plug-ins that the FAA uses to open attached files from within Lotus Notes don't appear to work properly on Windows Vista-equipped systems.

Meanwhile, other government agencies are discovering that some of their key applications suffer performance problems on Windows Vista. At the Environmental Protection Agency, tech staffers have found that backing up files from the agency's Cameo (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations) program is problematic if the program is stored in Windows Vista's programs folder, according to a memo issued last month by IT staff at the EPA.

In addition, a tool called EZ GPO created by the government's Energy Star program -- a joint effort by the EPA and Department of Energy -- to allow network administrators to automatically adjust the power consumption of computers on a network won't work on Windows Vista, according to an internal Energy Star bulletin seen by InformationWeek.

Microsoft officials insist that such early hang-ups are normal and won't hurt Windows Vista's sales in the federal government market. "These are some of the biggest enterprise customers in the world," said Curt Kolcun, Microsoft's federal sales director. "We're fully confident they'll achieve standardization [on Windows Vista] over the next several years."

But it's not just government agencies that are skipping Windows Vista out of compatibility concerns. A $350 software bundle that engineering students at Virginia Tech are required to purchase for their upcoming fall coursework isn't Windows Vista friendly. As a result, the department is advising students not to bring Vista-based laptops to class when they show up later this year.

No doubt there are many other such examples to be found within the private and public sectors. Should Microsoft be worried? In years past, maybe not. During previous releases of new operating systems, the company could afford to be nonchalant about compatibility issues, knowing they would be resolved over time. After all, what choice did customers have? The only real competing PC platform until recently, Apple's Macintosh, has perennially suffered from a far worse shortage of compatible applications.

But the game has changed. New competitors are emerging. The FAA, for instance, is considering moving to Google's new online Google Apps package to escape compatibility problems that may arise from combining Microsoft Office 2007 and Windows Vista on older desktops. Meanwhile, Dell Computer has announced that it will begin shipping some PCs with a version of the open-source Linux operating system pre-installed instead of Vista.

If temporary Windows Vista compatibility issues lead customers to alternatives, even as a stop-gap solution, Microsoft faces the risk that they might never return. Business professors like to call that the "thin edge of the wedge" phenomenon -- competitors with a foot in the door are sure to try and kick it down altogether.

Still, Wascha remains undaunted. "The coverage we have today is outstanding. Every time you try to bring an entire ecosystem around to a new product, you are going to have some speed bumps," he said. Microsoft hopes those bumps won't become big potholes.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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