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Why Windows Vista compatibility issues exist, and what to expect

Compatibility is a big concern for administrators planning an upgrade to Vista. Prepare for the conflicts by learning what to expect when moving away from Windows XP.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Brien M. Posey
One of the primary reasons that companies are holding off on upgrading to Windows Vista is that the OS is known to have some rather serious compatibility problems with many common applications.

By now, you've no doubt heard all the marketing hype alleging that Windows Vista is far more secure than its predecessors, and the truth of the matter is that Windows Vista really is a lot more secure than Windows XP. Unfortunately, security can sometimes be a double-edged sword, and while Vista's new security features do a decent job of keeping the bad guys out, they are also the source of many of the known Vista compatibility issues.

Keep in mind, though, that the compatibility issues with Windows Vista are not nearly as big of a problem today as they once were

The majority of issues stem from problems related to a security feature known as User Account Control. Microsoft designed User Account Control to prevent users from making certain types of changes to the system without the approval of an administrator. This can be a problem because Windows XP does very little to restrict the way users can interact with their workstations. In fact, for years now software vendors have taken advantage of that by designing software with the assumption that applications will be running in an unrestricted environment.

Because of the way Windows security works, though, applications generally have the same permission levels as the users who run them. In essence, if you restrict the user, you are also placing restrictions on the application. The security mechanisms in Windows XP worked exactly the same way, but there was one fundamental shift in the security model used in Windows Vista: In Vista, even administrators are treated as casual users. This means that even if you log in as a local administrator, you may not be able to run certain applications because Vista does not allow full, unlimited access to the system by the administrator account.

More on Windows Vista compatibility issues

Finding solutions to application incompatibility in Windows Vista 

Avoiding software conflicts in a Windows Vista migration

Keep in mind, though, that the compatibility issues with Windows Vista are not nearly as big of a problem today as they once were. The OS has been out for more than a year now, and the vast majority of software vendors have created Vista-specific versions of their applications. Of course, if you're contemplating an upgrade to Vista, it is important to find out which of your applications can run on it. Many software vendors offer patches for their products that allow them to be run on Vista, while others require you to buy an updated version of their product. This could make upgrading fairly expensive in some situations.

For the most part, the only Vista compatibility issues you'll likely have trouble with involve running legacy or proprietary applications for which no update is available. Some options for dealing with problems caused by these types of applications call for running them in a thin client environment or inside a virtual machine.

There have been a lot of rumors floating around stating that the upcoming service pack for Windows Vista will correct the compatibility problems that currently exist. However, Microsoft recently released a new white paper that says, for the most part, SP1 will not correct any compatibility problems.

So, the good news for now is that most software vendors have produced Windows Vista versions of their products. Nevertheless, there are also a lot of workarounds for situations in which no updates are available. I will discuss those workarounds as well as some compatibility testing techniques as this series progresses.


Why they exist and what to expect
Testing a single machine
Testing a large enterprise
Workarounds for compatibility problems

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities, and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal Web site at

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