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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.

The software maker is doing similar things with many application compatibility issues. For example, there are Windows programs designed to check what version of the operating system is running. If the system responds with anything other than XP, the application won't run. In a workaround, known as a "shim," Microsoft essentially lies to those programs that will otherwise work and says it is, in fact, XP.

But those are the easy compatibility challenges. Harder are issues like firewalls and antivirus software, which talk deeply to the plumbing of Windows. "If you touch the kernel, those things break," Jones said, adding that the company has been working for a long time with the major makers of those kinds of software.

Another challenge Microsoft faces as it expands its testing is separating the widespread issues from the isolated incidences. Historically, that's been tough for the company. This time though, it is counting on new technology to provide a critical boost as it races to meet its deadline.

"It's significantly changed the quality and the amount of feedback we get and the ability to respond," said Jones, a Windows veteran.

For years, when applications quit unexpectedly, Windows has asked whether it can report back to Microsoft about the problem. By knowing how prevalent an issue is, it can constantly tackle the biggest thorns.

With Vista, Microsoft has extended that to several more areas of the system. Microsoft can learn automatically when a Vista user has a device that has no driver, or if they are running a program that won't run or is constantly seeking administrator credentials.

Many eyes
Another challenge that Microsoft will face this time around is the fact that each Vista glitch will be so much more public. With Windows 95, the discussion was confined to tech geeks conversing in CompuServe forums. Today, it's a blog, and then instant headlines.

"If nine out of 10 people have a great experience, and the one is the person who writes (about their negative experience), that perception is hard to change," Jones said.

Overall, though, Jones said that the new technology is a boon, thanks to all the early and automated feedback.

"I think we're ahead of the game versus where we were with XP," he said.

Microsoft has already seen the benefit.

After a recent bug hunt, in which Microsoft employees were asked to upgrade XP machines at home, Windows chief Jim Allchin was worried when they found they couldn't get those PCs to update to Vista. It turned out, though, that all the problems boiled down to two specific bugs.

"We just need to get more people to use it now," Allchin said. "The thing that's most important, right now, is for people to give us the feedback fast."

Gartner's Silver said the key is whether there are issues that aren't so much bugs as poorly designed features. The things to watch out for, he said, are "design issues, rather than bugs that need to be ironed out."

Robert McLaws, who runs Vista enthusiast site Longhornblogs.com, said that the Beta 2 version appears to be a modest improvement on recent builds, but is a big improvement over Beta 1.

Still, McLaws said he is seeing significant battery life issues, as well as a glitch with his Hewlett-Packard printer, in running Vista Beta 2 on his machine. In addition, he said, "application compatibility is still a huge problem."

That said, he recommended enthusiasts put the software through its paces. "Overall stability was a big surprise," he noted.

As for businesses, Silver said companies should worry less about performance, particularly on existing machines. Instead, he said, companies should focus on whether key business applications are working on Vista.

And, as to the big question--whether there are any issues big enough to cause a major delay--people will have to wait and see.

"All indications are good," Allchin said in an interview last week. "And I spend most of my day worried."