Microsoft Concedes Vista Launch Problems Abandoning the pretense that Vista is the perfect OS, Microsoft reps sat down with us to discuss the OS’s problems in a (kind of) frank conversation
We were surprised when Microsoft reps agreed to discuss Vista’s launch problems and what the company has done to fix them. We were surprised not only that they agreed to answer our questions with candor, but that they were speaking to us at all. Our initial conversation occurred in June and set the stage for the article you’re reading. This dialogue also marked the first time in eight years that we had a private conversation with any Microsoft employee without a PR manager present.
The answers we got during this mid-June background conversation were brutally honest: Our source, a high-ranking Windows product manager, conceded that Microsoft botched the Vista launch. He added that the company’s biggest concern wasn’t the OS but rather the eroded faith in Microsoft’s flagship product among users of all types and experience levels.
Our conversation was refreshingly frank, and no topic appeared off limits. To wit:
- Our Microsoft source blamed bad drivers from GPU companies and printer companies for the majority of Vista’s early stability problems.|
- He described User Account Control as poorly implemented but defended it as necessary for the continued health of the Windows platform.
- He admitted that spending the money to port DirectX 10 to Windows XP would have been worth the expense.
- He assailed OEM system builders for including bad, buggy, or just plain useless apps on their machines in exchange for a few bucks on the back end.
- He described the Games for Windows initiative as a disaster, with nothing more than 64-bit compatibility for games to show for years of effort.
- He conceded that Apple appeals to more and more consumers because the hardware is slick, the price is OK, and Apple doesn’t annoy its customers (or allow third parties to).
Yes, the June conversation was dazzlingly candid, and we were looking forward to an equally blunt follow-up meeting—a scheduled late-July on-the-record interview with Erik Lustig, a senior product manager responsible for Windows Fundamentals. But then the universe as we know it returned to normal, and Microsoft became Microsoft again. Our interview with Lustig was overseen by a PR representative and was filled with the type of carefully measured language that we’ve come to expect from Microsoft when discussing “challenges.” A “challenge” is Microsoftese for anything that isn’t going according to the company’s carefully choreographed plans. In the text that follows, we’ve combined the information conveyed during the mid-June background conversation with decoded translations of the “on the record” conversation we had in July. The contrast between the two interviews is stunning.
We herewith give you a snapshot of Microsoft’s take on Vista launch problems. Stability According to now-public internal Microsoft memos, 18 percent of all Vista crashes reported during the months immediately following its launch were due to unstable Nvidia graphics card drivers.
Microsoft has never issued any public comment concerning who’s to blame for the driver crashes, but during our background conversation, our source conceded that hardware OEMs were writing WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model) drivers for a moving target during Vista’s beta and release-candidate periods. Our source told us that because of low-level OS changes, hardware vendors didn’t have sufficient time to develop and test their drivers. This mirrors what Steven Sinofsky, the head of the Windows team, said in an interview with Cnet earlier this year: “The schedule challenges that we had, and the information disclosure weren’t consistent with the realities of the project, which made it all a much trickier end point when we got to general availability in January.”
Launch problems aside, once Vista is updated with SP1, it seems much more reliable than it was early on. The Maximum PC Lab isn’t equipped for long-term stability testing, but in our anecdotal experience, Vista’s stability problems are largely fixed, even on somewhat exotic hardware. Whether Vista is more stable than WinXP really depends on the actual hardware configuration you’re using more than anything else. Compatibility
While discussing this story on background, Microsoft placed blame for incompatible software and hardware on its third-party partners. However, during our on-the-record chat, Lustig simply said, “I honestly don’t have the exact numbers for that,” in reference to the ratio of crashes attributed to Microsoft versus third-party entities.
Regardless, we’re well aware that Microsoft had been talking to hardware and software developers about Vista compatibility issues since the 2005 Meltdown, Microsoft’s annual gaming conference. At that conference, Microsoft informed game developers that they needed to write apps that behaved well, or they would face problems with Vista. The requirements were, for the most part, simple—caveats like not writing to C:/Program Files/ or C:/Windows/.
It’s also important to note a shameful truth that everyone in the PC industry is aware of but rarely discusses: When a new OS comes out, third-party vendors will often withhold compatibility support in order to drive sales of new units, turning the cost of supporting a new OS from a liability into a source of revenue. The same goes for software like antivirus utilities and some CD/DVD burning apps, both of which hook into the OS very closely. Security
The statistics on Vista’s security record are clear: Vista is the most secure version of Windows to date. Nonetheless, Lustig said that Microsoft made “changes that have had some short-term ramifications that we’ve worked very hard the last year and a half, and through Service Pack 1, to address.” Some of these changes may have had unintended negative consequences, but Vista has suffered fewer security defects than any previous version of Windows. In short, sometimes you just have to give up flexibility for security. As Lustig told us, “I believe that those changes are going to be a fundamental basis for the integrity of the platform.” We agree. Gaming Performance
During our initial June interview, Microsoft blamed unoptimized videocard drivers for poor gaming performance. To confirm this, we tested both the launch version of Vista and the post-SP1 version of Vista with current Nvidia drivers. Our gaming tests showed only the most negligible performance differences between the two OS builds, confirming that Vista itself was not to blame for early game performance issues. Rather, those earliest Vista videocard drivers were the culprits. Indeed, now 18 months after its launch, Vista’s performance is within striking distance of WinXP’s in almost every test we ran. The Impact of SP1
Because Vista’s first Service Pack significantly improved the struggling OS, we were surprised that Microsoft didn’t tack a Second Edition label on it, a la Windows 98. Providing measurable improvements in performance and stability, Service Pack 1 should have been Vista’s saving grace. No? Lustig told us that despite significant improvements in most of Vista’s deficient areas, “there is a lot of leftover concern [about Vista] based on information folks have heard anecdotally.”
Quite an admission. Lustig continued, “The challenge for Microsoft isn’t necessarily continuing to take the feedback and improving the product—we’ve been doing that since launch and will continue to. The challenge is getting the message out that we’ve listened, we’ve made very positive changes, we’re seeing very positive results from the changes we’ve made, and there’s enough value in the product.”
After spending the last six weeks getting down and dirty with the OS—on multiple hardware configurations, in both 64-bit and 32-bit flavors, and on mobile and desktop systems—we’re willing to give it a second chance. There are still tons of things about the OS we’re not happy with—starting with the now-$350 Ultimate SKU and working down from there—but from a performance, stability, and security standpoint, we’re satisfied with where Vista is today. You no longer need to sacrifice performance or stability if you want to run the latest version of Windows.
If you already have Vista, there’s no reason not to use it, but should you go out and buy Vista today? Probably not. With Windows 7’s launch scheduled for early 2010, we’re actually closer to that date than we are to Vista’s launch. If you’ve ridden out the storm on XP so far, it probably isn’t worth investing in Vista for just a year and a half of use. Exclusive Interview: Microsoft Admits What Went Wrong with Vista, and How They Fixed It | Maximum PC