Vista's driver ills aren't just Microsoft's fault

Delays with drivers result from Microsoft's partner ecosystem

Microsoft's debacle with Windows Vista device drivers malfunctioning after an upgrade to Service Pack 1 is an expected, almost inevitable result of the strategic path it took with Windows' initial release more than two decades ago.

While Microsoft has always developed its own software as well as some hardware (think keyboards and mice), it has long relied on partners to create an unparalleled selection of applications and hardware devices that has become one of Windows' chief attractions.

But in trying to preside over this huge ecosystem of partners, Microsoft often more resembles a beleaguered parent than an iron-fisted ruler.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of device drivers. To make Vista attractive to customers, Microsoft wants as many devices as possible to run on the OS. At Vista's launch last January, Microsoft claimed that 1.6 million devices supported Vista. That number was quickly forgotten amidst widespread reports of nonworking devices.

The problem is that hardware vendors hate writing drivers because of the difficulty and lack of reward, according to an analyst at In-Stat, Ian Lao. After all, any large vendor (think Logitech or HP) has hundreds of discontinued products that are still new enough that there will be customers wanting to run them on Windows Vista.

As a result, vendors cut corners by patching existing drivers to make them run on a new OS or update, even it that makes the code more fragile. Or they simply ignore Microsoft's nagging.

This makes getting a comprehensive set of drivers ready for a new release "an incredibly difficult task," a global solutions director for Getronics NV,Lee Nicholls, said. Microsoft "has to cover a huge amount of hardware and software driver libraries provided by partners and OEMs."

Nicholls agrees that the responsibility of having drivers available is shared equally by device makers and Microsoft.

"But that's still a big burden. Older devices and sometimes even new ones can slip through the cracks," he said. "Microsoft have a much tougher job cut out for them than, for example, Apple, who only support a limited hardware platform with their operating system."

Microsoft has some carrots to dangle in front of hardware makers. The chief incentive is its Windows Logo program. Devices whose drivers pass a Vista validation test can place a sticker on its packaging with the sales-enhancing proclamation that they are either "Certified for Windows Vista" or their product "Works With Windows Vista." Microsoft will also distribute those drivers for them via Windows Update.

But Microsoft has not updated its Windows Logo program to require drivers to be tested specifically against SP1. It hasn't even offered revamped driver validation tests that specifically certify compatibility with SP1, according to several sources, including peripheral maker Intel, and Macrovision, which sells the Installshield software for creating driver installation packages.

As a result, "it's possible that a Vista driver is incompatible with Vista SP1," director of installation product management at Macrovision, Jeff Greenwald, said.

Microsoft did not respond to specific questions about when it planned to update its Windows Logo program or its driver validation tests for SP1.

"We're still in the process of reaching out to the specific hardware partners that are affected and are providing them with the necessary guidance to ensure a smooth installation," it said in an emailed statement.

A weight problem and a wait problem

Of course, vendors could have tried to run their drivers on Release Candidate (RC) versions of Vista SP1, which have been available since the fall.

But Paul Morris, a project manager at QualityLogic, driver testing firm, points out that with Vista itself, Microsoft made changes right up to its second RC in October 2006, mere weeks before it was released to manufacturing (RTMed).

Such changes could break compatibility for drivers previously validated on Vista.

And make no mistake: SP1 is chockful of changes -- 55 pages worth -- as Microsoft was unable to resist the temptation to cram as many features and improvements as possible into SP1.

Though users will be able to download a compressed 50 MB version of SP1, the service pack actually tips the digital scale at nearly 700 MB.

By comparison, Windows XP SP2 was only about 266 MB, or two-fifths the size of Vista SP1, when it came out in 2004, and still many called SP2 an operating system disguised as an upgrade. There were so many new security features and other changes that corporations cried foul at all of the broken applications.

Ironically, Microsoft has been trying to become more 'agile' and lightweight in its development. For most of its products, including Windows and Office, it has re-committed itself to a 2-3 year lifecycle. And Microsoft vowed three months ago, when it released its first beta, that SP1 would focus on background improvements and bug fixes and not have many new features.

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