No application compatibility woes for Windows 7 -- yet

Microsoft's efforts to avoid the problems that plagued Vista are working

Microsoft's attempts to ensure better application compatibility for Windows 7 than its immediate predecessor, Windows Vista, had at launch appear to have borne fruit.

While app compatibility remains top of mind for many potential Windows 7 upgraders, Microsoft is trumpeting statistics showing impressive numbers of applications that run without hiccup on Windows 7.

And analysts agree that the problems with Vista -- partly or entirely-non-running device drivers and apps -- that burned many users and contributed to Vista's poor adoption haven't cropped up.

"I haven't run into any corporations who said, 'Gee, because of application Y, we can't deploy Windows 7,'" said Michael Cherry, an analyst with the independent firm, Directions on Microsoft. He gives Microsoft credit for "working hard -- very, very hard" to ensure that application and device compatibility wouldn't be an issue.

Last week, Microsoft released its most up-to-date spreadsheet for IT professionals ( download here) listing information about which applications are compatible with Windows 7 or not.

Of the more than 13,000 apps on the list, 82% are compatible with Windows 7 today. That includes the 23% that have been certified compatible under Microsoft's Windows 7 Logo program.

That follows a blog posted by Microsoft last month in which it claimed that more than 800,000 unique apps run on Windows 7 (including multiple versions of the same programs, 32- and 64-bit editions and a variety of language editions). Of those, more than 9,000 apps and devices have been certified as compatible under the Windows 7 Logo program. More information can be found at Microsoft's Windows 7 Compatibility Center.

By comparison, Microsoft only had 800 unique apps certified as being Vista compatible in February 2007, one month after its release to consumers.

Granted, ensuring application compatibility for Windows 7 was a much easier task than it was for Vista. With Vista, Microsoft made major changes to the kernel to improve security, such as removing administrator rights by default for users and installing a feature called User Account Control (UAC) that prompted users to verify whenever a new application or driver was about to be installed. Those changes broke many XP apps.

By contrast, "compatibility is a short hurdle for Windows 7 because developers have already put the time into getting their apps to run on Vista and the OSes have a similar basic technology," said Janel Garvin, CEO of developer market research firm Evans Data Corp.

Positive reviews and pent-up demand for Windows 7 is also making it easier.

"With Vista, they failed miserably to get developers to write for the new OS, and it has never gained a lot of support in the software development world," she said. "Windows 7, on the other hand is an OS that developers are VERY excited about."

According to Evans' surveys, almost 30% of developers expect Windows 7 to be their primary target next year, which Garvin said is more than any other OS, including XP.

For individuals whose apps do malfunction on Windows 7, there are multiple potential solutions:

  • Run the 'troubleshoot application compatibility' feature in Windows 7. It will detect what OS environment the app runs best in, and then simulates it under Windows 7.
  • Use Windows 7's built-in virtualization for Windows XP, called XP Mode.
  • Or run a third-party virtualization app such as VMware Inc.'s free VMware Player or the for-fee VMware Workstation.

Companies facing compatibility problems with apps on Windows 7 have a trio of Microsoft-produced solutions:

  • The aforementioned XP Mode;
  • For large enterprise customers of Microsoft, MED-V virtualization;
  • For custom-written apps, 'shimming' them using Microsoft's tools;

What Cherry wants, but has not yet seen, are vendors who are actually optimizing their wares for Windows 7's capabilities.

"Besides not puking and falling over, how about making your app actually exploit something in Windows 7?" he said, citing features such as Jump Lists, the Ribbon interface, or the 64-bit components that are now mainstream on new PCs.

Cherry isn't hopeful that this will emerge, pointing to Microsoft's own upcoming Office 2010. It will run on 32-bit and 64-bit, and be backwards compatible with XP -- making it impossible to optimize for Windows 7, he said.

"And if Microsoft is not willing to do that, who else is going to do it?" he said.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld (US)
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