Vista's Incompatibility Problem

By Joe Dysart

Nearly a year after the release of Windows Vista -- the latest generation of Windows -- most users worldwide have responded with a resounding “no thanks,” fearing the upgrade represents little more than a headache.

“I gave Vista a chance -- I just can’t use it as my primary OS (operating system) anymore,” says Chris Pirillo, a high-profile tech blogger who rants about all-too-common Vista complaints. “The shipping version of this OS is late beta, at best.”

It’s an unfortunate stumble for Microsoft, given that Vista brings an entire new level of security, search efficiency, and graphics to Windows -- among other things.

In fact, some converts report they’re spending much less time ferreting out viruses and other malware on their computer networks, since Vista’s security is much more robust than Windows XP.

“Students are getting more out of the language, multimedia, and other applications on which we base our lab lessons,” says Nancy Iben, assistant director of technology for Iowa’s Perry Community School District. “And support staff members are spending a lot less time having to restart, reformat, or rebuild PCs.”

Plus, Vista works exceedingly well with many Microsoft legacy products, including pre-Vista versions of Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Front Page, according to the company.

But the downside, according to Pirillo and others, is that a plethora of hardware and software is simply not compatible with Vista. One example: After installing the initial version of Vista, Pirillo found that his scanner, fax software, and desktop search software all did not work with Vista.

He also found that Vista significantly slows down his PC, a common complaint against the new operating system. “This is even with most of Vista’s eye candy tuned to a dull roar,” he says.

It’s no wonder then that the December 2007 figures from market research group Net Applications show Vista’s market penetration at just 10.48 percent.

Checks and balances

The pervasive user dismay also was reflected in an April 2007 poll by Information Week, which found that 30 percent of users surveyed had no intentions of upgrading to Vista -- at all.

“While security enhancements remain the primary reason for companies to adopt Windows Vista, concerns about compatibility and cost are still out there,” says survey author Lisa Smith, the publication’s managing editor for research.

Indeed, the backlash against Vista has grown so intense, PC vendor Dell has begun offering select desktops and notebooks installed with Windows XP or XP Pro again, according to Lionel Menchaca, Dell’s digital media manager.

Still, even with all the negative press on Vista’s initial release, most businesses grapple with two nagging concerns: Should we continue to hold out against upgrading to Vista -- and should we bother to upgrade at all?

Probably the best way to get a handle on whether Vista is right for your school is to look at some online tools offered by Microsoft and others. These will give you a much better idea of how existing hardware and software will stack up if you upgrade.

Individual PC users, for example, can download the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor (www.microsoft.com), which will analyze the hardware in your PC and determine if your have enough power to run the new Windows on your machine.

School IT administrators can also use Microsoft’s Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 (http://technet.microsoft.com), which is designed to pinpoint the system applications that will work on Vista and the ones that will be dead in the water. Another tool for administrators, Windows Vista Hardware Assessment 2.1 (www.microsoft.com) does the same for the computers and hardware on a network.

One caveat: You’ll want to use the results of Microsoft’s tools only as a guideline. The reason? Like most manufacturers, Microsoft’s compatibility analytics tend to be skewed towards the exceedingly optimistic.

If you’re looking for an independent analysis of software that works or doesn’t work on Vista, check out IeXbeta (www.iexbeta.com). It’s a wiki maintained by a virtual community of Vista watchers and application experts from around the world.

Consider switching to Linux

If you’re really adventurous, you may even want to consider forsaking Vista altogether and switching to Linux (www.linux.org). It’s an “open source” operating system that is voluntarily maintained by IT experts around the world and reputedly does not suffer the kind of problems Windows does with each upgrade.

“It’s a huge bargain,” says Kevin McDonald, assistant director of application hosting at Vanderbilt University. “We felt we had everything to gain, and very little to lose.”

As most IT types know all too well, going with a system that is owned by no one and can be easily improved upon by everyone can be exhilarating. “That’s why we believe open source is inevitable,” says Caroline E. Kazmierski, a corporate communications specialist for Red Hat (www.redhat.com), a Linux service maintenance company. “You can see the code, change it, learn from it.

“Bugs are more quickly found and fixed,” Kazmierski says. “And when customers don’t like how one vendor is serving them, they can choose another without overhauling their infrastructure. No more technology lock-in. No more monopolies.”

Of course, getting from here to there can be painful. Migrating to a completely new operating system means proprietary software will need to be rewritten, off-the-shelf software will often have to be replaced, and all staff will need to be retrained.

Many businesses, after doing a full analysis of such an upheaval, decide to stick with the devil they know -- even as they continue to gaze wistfully at what could be.

Vanderbilt’s McDonald is one of the IT administrators who stopped gazing. After crunching the numbers, he found his organization could save as much as 60 percent by migrating some systems over to Linux and decided to make the jump.

These days, the institution’s finance and human resource applications, as well as a number of other applications, all run on Linux. “Looking back, it was a pretty simple task for our experienced Unix administrators,” McDonald says.

Granted, even Linux’ most ardent supporters realize that the operating system has a long way to go before getting a chance to unseat Windows as the world’s de facto operating system for most computer users. But in the meantime, converts would rather be part of the solution than the problem.

“Keep an open mind,” says Richard Ray, a systems analyst at Wake Forest University, who also made the switch. “The perception that open source is not supported, not ready for mission-critical applications is not accurate. The community model is much better. Open source has so many eyes looking at it that it is pretty solid. It just grows and evolves over time.”

Joe Dysart (joe@joedysart.com), a contributing editor to ASBJ, is an Internet speaker and business consultant.