The Vista SP1 Drivers Affair: A Donnybrook Déjà Vu

Maybe Windows Vista isn't an OS after all.  Maybe it's just a soap opera and, if so, I have to say that I find the current story arc disturbing. 

Our hero or, depending on your perspective, antihero is Vista, an up-and-coming desktop OS who's the new kid on the block.  He's taken a few knocks and committed a few embarrassing faux pas, but he's gaining maturity and isn't as socially awkward as he was in his early days. In fact, some of the other characters in the drama are starting to like him. The daytime drama's ratings are up a bit and who knows, the series might turn out to have some longevity – or so it seemed until a few weeks ago.

Vista's SP1 finally started trickling out to its users via Windows Update in early March and, for many, the update was a welcome or at least unobtrusive one.  For some, however, it was a nightmare. Our hero, it seemed, was back to his old obnoxious self.  You see, Windows Update refused to download SP1 to some Vista users because it didn't like some of the drivers installed on those systems.

Apparently, Microsoft determined that 19 drivers for things like sound, Web cams, fingerprint sensors, display drivers, smart card controllers, a wireless WAN access card, and a component of a Symantec application are all so unstable when run on Vista SP1 that it's a bad idea to let SP1 install in the first place.  The result was that some users were unable to install SP1, and all because of a few bad drivers – Windows Update was saying, in effect, "you can't get SP1 until you get rid of those lousy drivers." Some of the drivers had been updated by their vendors, but not all were, putting those users in an impossible position.  I guess it makes a sort of sideways sense, given SP1's whole raison d'etre: It makes Vista more stable, and what's the point of that if you know you're running a known "bluescreener" of a driver?  But it seems a mite harsh.

The déjà vu part for me is that this story hearkens back to a similar one from 20 years ago, when Microsoft was trying to establish OS/2 1.x as a successful OS. (And please don't write to tell me that it was IBM rather than Microsoft that wrote OS/2 1.x – while a common misconception, it's not true.  OS/2's main architect, Gordon Letwin, was a Microsoft employee, and every briefing and meeting that I went to in those days about OS/2 1.x was Microsoft-centric.  Microsoft may want us to think that OS/2 was IBM's misadventure, but it wasn't, at least not until OS/2 2.0 – that was IBM through and through, all right.) As with Vista, one of the things that made people reject OS/2 was hardware and software compatibility issues.  DOS programs didn't run well under OS/2 for architectural reasons (the 286 processor wasn't equipped to run both protected mode OS/2 applications and real mode DOS applications side by side), and hardware caused trouble because OS/2 lacked drivers for so many PC peripherals, including some nearly ubiquitous devices such as HP printers. 

The problem, you see, was that HP had no interest in writing OS/2 drivers, which leads to an interesting question: Whose responsibility is it to make sure that an OS has a sufficiently wide array of hardware drivers?  In the case of HP printer drivers, HP's large market share would seem to dictate that Microsoft should’ve done anything in order to ship OS/2 with HP printer drivers.  On the other hand, were I to start my own line of printers and had a market share of only about 30 – and here "30" would refer to total number of units shipped (I've got a lot of relatives) rather than any sort of percentage – then I suspect it'd be up to me, the hardware vendor, to write the drivers, and therein lies the interesting question:  When – if ever – should Microsoft write drivers when a vendor is too lazy to do it?

As I said, I'm not sure that I have the answer to that question, but I do know that one of the things that killed OS/2 was its lack of key drivers, so perhaps it mightn't have been a bad idea for Microsoft to step in and repair this dozen or so of badly-written drivers, if only just this once – they want Vista to be successful, and this episode has tarnished its reputation.
The only explanation I can come up with is one that fits perfectly with the notion of operating system as soap opera – you see, someone must have been afflicted with amnesia!  "So tune in next week, friends, where we'll see Vista's younger but more responsible brother Server 2008 try to distance itself from its unpopular sibling… you won't want to miss it!"

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