On the hunt for Vista bugs

With the next Windows version under intense scrutiny, Microsoft is out to make its cleanest sweep ever.

When it comes to Windows Vista, there are bugs--and then there are bugs.

There is no doubt that people will find glitches in Beta 2 of the oft-delayed operating system. The question is whether there are any show-stoppers.

Microsoft has time to squish some bugs, but it needs to avoid any significant headaches if it is to make its revised goal of finishing the code by November and launching the product in January.

Already, there have been discussions of installation issues and assorted issues related to battery life, performance and application compatibility. But analysts say it's too soon to size up where Microsoft is at.

"At this point, I don't think we know enough about the bugs," Gartner analyst Michael Silver said.

But over the coming weeks, there is likely to be a lot more discussion of what works and what doesn't in the test version that Microsoft released last week. It should become particularly active as the company expands the number of testers into the millions of users.

The company already knows of some problems and expects others. Only about 40 percent of Windows XP applications can run without any modification, for example. A good chunk of the remainder require only very slight tweaks. Many of those incompatibilities have already been fixed, either through workarounds put in place by Microsoft or in collaboration with the application's maker.

There are still a number of hardware products that don't have drivers. Also, there are plenty of areas where Microsoft hopes to increase the system's performance, notably in the new built-in desktop search capabilities.

Microsoft executives in recent days have expressed optimism that they have made enough progress with Beta 2 to meet a tight deadline. However, CEO Steve Ballmer appeared to hedge his bets in a speech in Japan. Others have been even less optimistic. Research firm Gartner, for example, said it doesn't expect a release until the second quarter of next year, at the earliest.

The company has enough time to fix the bugs it expects, Chris Jones, the Microsoft corporate vice president who heads up the Windows Client development effort, said in an interview. The key issue, though, is whether there are features that require any significant reworking.

"Then we would make a very hard decision," Jones said. At that point, the company would have to quickly ascertain whether the issue could be resolved in the remaining time. If not, it would likely have to either scrap the feature or delay Vista further.

That said, Jones said he believes that with all the testing Microsoft has done, the company would probably know if there were major clouds on the horizon. "I find it quite unlikely that we've missed one of those cases," he said.

Rough spots
The gray area comes if a certain feature works, but the experience isn't meeting users' expectations.

One of the potentially challenging new features is something called User Account Control. Basically, the security feature is designed to reduce the amount of time that Vista runs with full administrative privileges. Instead, the system runs with standard privileges and queries users for their password or OK when significant changes are being made.

Currently, though, such boxes are popping up rather frequently. Microsoft is working to tweak the rules and create workarounds. For example, many programs are set to check for updates whenever they run. So far, that check has required an administrative OK, but Microsoft is changing it so that existing applications will be able to update themselves in standard user mode.

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