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Windows Vista Service Pack 1: Here It Comes Ready or Not

There's a saying in the software business that, I believe, originated with the geniuses at game maker Id Software. (If it didn't, it was certainly popularized there.) It goes something like this: "We'll ship the next version of our software when it's ready." The implications of this simple statement are obvious: Rather than adhere to some arbitrary schedule, companies that make software can and should deliver code to customers only when it's ready (i.e., when it passes rigidly enforced testing milestones and is judged to be of high enough quality to withstand real world use.)

Microsoft allegedly adheres to this policy, frequently stating how it will review tester feedback from pre-release versions of its software before deciding when and how it will ship a final version of the product in question. However, over the years, I've watched as the company has announced the "completion" of a software product in order to meet an arbitrary internal schedule. Sadly, they've done it again, this time with Windows Vista SP1.

I know, it's astonishing, but with Vista selling far fewer licenses in its first year than originally expected, Microsoft was clearly under a lot of pressure to deliver an update that many feel will jumpstart critical business deployments. Vista SP1, after all, improves the Vista experience in a number of key ways, including hardware and software compatibility, reliability, file copy operation performance, Sleep and Hibernation resume speed, and even security. (See my Vista SP1 FAQ for a full list of how SP1 improves Windows Vista.) Most important to business customers, of course, is the fact that Microsoft eliminated a whopping 150 enterprise application blockers, which Microsoft defines as applications that previously prevented one or more corporations from upgrading to Vista.

So here's what the company has done: Developed side-by-side with Windows Server 2008 because they share the same code base, Windows Vista SP1 was steamrolled through the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) process over the past weekend (the official announcement came at the unlikely time of 6:00 A.M. PST on Monday) so that Microsoft could announce the completion of both products together. However, Windows 2008 has been in active development for about five years. So the past several months have been exceedingly calm on the Server side: After all, this product was in the can a long time ago, and Microsoft has been able to focus on fit and finish work, finely tuning the product for its final release.

SP1 has been afforded no such luxury. In fact, as recently as six months ago, Microsoft insisted publicly that it wasn't even sure it would need to release a service pack for Vista, which it said was so reliable, secure, and stable that the company was still considering its options. No, SP1 isn't a huge OS update like Vista itself, or Windows 2008, but that's almost beside the point when you consider how important this release has become to the success of Vista. Surely, Microsoft would wait to get this one right.

Think again: The proof is in Microsoft's slipshod deployment strategy for SP1. It turns out that a "small set of device drivers" causes issues with the final code for SP1, so Microsoft will work with its hardware partners over the next few months to resolve the problem. These issues were discovered by SP1 beta testers late in the beta testing process, which apparently did have an arbitrary stop point, despite protestations to the contrary about quality.

In the meantime, Microsoft is rolling out SP1 regardless of the problems it knows about, but is doing so in a way that it hopes will bypass them. Beginning in mid-March, SP1 will be delivered to users via Windows Update, but only to those users who do not have the affected hardware installed on their PCs. Microsoft expects to have resolved the device driver issues by mid-April, because at that time, it will begin rolling out SP1 to everyone via Windows Update. (Well, at least to those who have configured automatic updates.)

What about other customers? Packaged retail versions of Vista with SP1 and new PCs with the system preinstalled will ship "in the coming months." (Read: After the hardware issues are resolved.) But Microsoft is manufacturing DVDs for its Volume Licensing enterprise customers starting "today" (Monday). Before the issue is resolved.

Maybe I'm being pedantic, and I recognize that these issues will be stunningly uninteresting in just a few months time, but forgive me for believing that software really should be delivered only when it's ready. And in my book, Vista SP1 just doesn't meet any established criteria for completeness yet.

I should have the final SP1 code soon and will do my own tests, though Microsoft isn't talking up which devices are problematic. I wonder if we'll ever get a definitive list of these devices.

This article originally appeared in the February 5, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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