Reporter’s Notebook LOS ANGELES — “Microsoft shipped Windows before the drivers were ready. People shouldn’t be so quick to jump because there’s a serious lack of drivers and it breaks many applications from previous versions.”
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s what a lot of reporters were saying about Windows XP when it launched in 2001.
During a round table here at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies and a former analyst with IDC, plastered on a screen some of the FUD from the press shortly after Windows XP’s launch. Some reporters in the room were from those very publications.
His point to us: you’ve said the same thing before about XP as you are doing now with Vista, and it’s not true. Plus, XP turned out pretty well despite the bumpy launch.
“They are doing at least as well as they did during the XP launch, if not a little better,” he later told me. “They have more systems in place to bring people into the company to test and prepare drivers for launch than they did for Windows XP.”
Justin Jed, group product manager for Windows products at Microsoft (Quote), likes to point out what he calls “data over decibels.” When Vista was released to manufacturing (RTM) in November, it had 1.4 million device drivers, three times what XP had at RTM. At the January launch, there were 1.7 million drivers, and now that number is close to 2 million.
Among the applications broken are those that expect and assume administrator privileges to install or perform certain actions, and those that try to write to the kernel. Vista’s new User Access Control (UAC) is meant to restrict access and impose some measure of security on the system. The same applies for kernel (define) restrictions; Vista locks users out from kernel access in an attempt to block rootkits (define) and other malware (define).
Along the way, they broke a few apps. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not so bad. “The price of security can be an inconvenience,” said Kay.
While the XP launch had similar gripes regarding drivers, Kay said the Vista launch is going smoother, with fewer support calls, and the call volume dropped at four times as fast as calls trailed off for XP.
However, he conceded that there are newer support methods today that weren’t around in 2001 for the XP launch, such as the numerous support forums on Microsoft’s Web site.
Then came the magic word: “nVidia.” The graphics card vendor has been the outright leader for at least a decade, rarely stumbling in its efforts to squeeze out greater performance. Even Intel (Quote) couldn’t keep up with nVidia’s (Quote) rate of releases, because the models are so different.
Whereas Intel wants to go smaller and more power efficient, a marathon runner’s approach, nVidia has taken the body builder’s approach. It’s nowhere near as obsessed with smaller manufacturing processes, heat dissipation or power draw like a CPU vendor. That’s why its new video cards are almost a foot long with enormous fans and consume almost 300 watts.
But while nVidia has the horsepower, its drivers for Vista have an abysmal reputation for crashing and burning like Lindsay Lohan at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night. No company has been pilloried worse than nVidia for its Vista support on message boards, as was evidenced by the reaction in the room when the company’s name was brought up.
A Microsoft rep in the room alluded that nVidia may have gotten certified too soon and that the WHQL model evolved and changed after certification was granted. The never-bashful writer Jerry Pournelle erupted at this news, whereupon Microsoft asked that the subject be changed.
The thing is, nVidia could face the music from Microsoft’s Driver Quality Rating system, which rates drivers based on the number of crash reports Microsoft receives. Microsoft tells companies that reach yellow or red status to improve their quality or lose their certification.
Jed would not comment on where nVidia stands. “They are a very important partner. We want people to perceive the logo program not so much about fear but how we are delivering quality to users,” he said. All of which is well and good, but the system is toothless if a major vendor is allowed to skate despite repeated complaints.
Consumer anger has resulted in Nvidiaclassaction.org, which launched first but which is parked, and nvidiaclassaction.info, which, judging by the 65 messages on its message boards, shows that not every nVidia owner is feeling litigious. nVidia did not respond to inquiries for comment, but it has released two drivers this week.
NVidia aside, Jed said he is happy with the overall state of Vista drivers. “We knew about some of the problems when we came to market, but we think our systems for healing worked, and we will continue to move in the right direction,” he said. “We believe we have 95 to 96 percent device coverage based on data we see. So we feel we’re doing pretty well.”