Microsoft addresses legacy apps with Windows 8 app compatibility tools

Frank Ohlhorst

New desktop operating systems often bring IT administrators unwelcome surprises. Sometimes applications work as expected, sometimes they don't work at all and sometimes apps behave strangely. Microsoft is attempting to ease the transition to Windows 8 by incorporating legacy app-support options directly into its latest OS. Windows 8 application compatibility should make enterprise adoption easier.

Nevertheless, admins want to be sure that their applications are compatible before venturing down the Windows 8 upgrade path. Microsoft offers numerous resources to verify compatibility and even workarounds for various Windows 8 applications.

A great starting point for compatibility research is Microsoft's Windows Compatibility Center, which offers lists of compatible (and incompatible) applications and a knowledge center that includes information on both apps and devices certified to run under Windows 8. The compatibility center even offers a nifty search feature that speeds up the discovery process.

The compatibility center relies on user participation and rates compatibility via community ratings, so it is not the be-all, end-all place for full validation. For example, some applications may have only a minority of compatibility votes, so there is room for interpretation. In other words, an application may only have 150 out of 325 votes for compatibility, and that indicates some users who may have had compatibility problems with that particular application.

Also, if the application you are interested in scores low on the compatibility scale or is not certified for use with Windows 8, it doesn't necessary mean all is lost. Further information about compatibility can found on Microsoft's TechNet under the Windows 8 Application Compatibility Forum, where users can research answers to questions or post questions of their own.

Of course, the quest for compatibility doesn't stop there. Microsoft has incorporated a compatibility checker into the Windows 8 installer. The installation program scans a machine that is being upgraded and reports if any of the detected applications pose a problem. IT staffers can then determine what steps are needed to make the application run acceptably, which may entail an upgrade, a patch or selecting a replacement application for that chore.

However, manual upgrades and installations are rare in the enterprise. OS upgrades are usually pushed out by a policy or delivered via an image-casting tool. Local applications are replaced with the new image or are often not vetted before the automated upgrade process occurs. This situation can create havoc for the end users, especially when they discover that some applications no longer work or have disappeared from their desktops.

There is also the possibility that end users will attempt to install applications after the upgrade process, only to find out that those apps are incompatible or fail to function properly. Any way you slice it, addressing such problems is a chore for IT staffers.

Windows 8 application compatibility tools

Microsoft offers several tools that can be used after the upgrade process to make applications more compatible. For example, there is the Compatibility tab on the shortcut menu. The pull-down menu in Windows 8 (much like Windows 7) allows a user to modify the behavior of the OS to mimic an earlier version of Windows.

More on Windows 8 app compatibility

How to handle legacy applications when migrating to Windows 8

Frequently asked questions about Windows 8's user interface and app compatibility

You could need third-party tools to migrate apps to Windows 8

The Desktop Shortcut Properties Compatibility menu includes the "Run compatibility troubleshooter," which is an automated tool that has a wizard-like interface. In many case, the troubleshooter can identify and automatically repair compatibility problems.

However, if the troubleshooter cannot come up with a resolution, it offers a "troubleshoot program" wizard, which provides additional steps to solve Windows 8 app compatibility issues.

Most IT support staffers will find that most compatibility problems can be resolved with these tools. But if all of the included processes and tools net no acceptable results, there is another alternative -- virtualization.

To solve some compatibility issues, Windows 7 came equipped with Windows XP Mode, a virtual machine based upon Microsoft's Virtual PC technology, which created a virtual environment to run legacy programs in. XP Mode proved to be a real life-saver for those running older applications.

However, Windows 8 does not support XP Mode and, for those upgrading from Windows 7, Windows 8 fails to warn that XP Mode is on the system and doesn't mention that it is an unsupported item.

The lack of XP Mode seems like a major shortcoming of Windows 8, but there are some workarounds. First of all, XP Mode can be made to work using a third-party virtualization platform, such as Oracle's Virtual Box.

Also, IT staffers can choose to run Client Hyper-V, the virtualization client supported by Windows 8, and then create a virtual machine running an earlier version of Windows. Either way, Windows 8 application compatibility doesn't have to be a show stopper for those looking to make the move to the new OS and beyond.

View the next item in this Essential Guide: Examining alternatives to Windows 8 or view the full guide: Post-XPalypse: Surviving a world changed by Windows 8.1 features

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