Can Windows 7 overcome Vista driver woes?

Microsoft is hoping for zero hardware install problems when Windows 7 finally hits the market but is that really realistic when more than 10% of printer drivers for Vista are still failing to work properly?

Getting third-party hardware to work is as Microsoft recognises perhaps the most crucial factor in making Windows 7 a success. So it’s no surprise that it’s one of the chief topics of conversation at its annual WinHEC convention for hardware manufacturers in LA.

A central element of Microsoft’s current approach is the belief that driver problems with Windows 7 should be less pronounced because most of the major legwork has already been done for Vista. As Windows core head honcho Jon DeVaan explained in his keynote: “For Windows 7 we have the tenet that if something works on Vista it really should work on Windows 7.”

However Microsoft’s own internal evidence shows that not everything is working that well in Vista. In a presentation on how to build drivers more effectively in collaboration with Microsoft senior program manager lead Chris Matichuk disclosed rarely-seen figures from Microsoft’s own internal systems that collect data on how Vista performs principally its Online Crash Analysis and Customer Experience Improvement Program schemes. The data which covers attempted driver installations for Vista SP1 users during September 2008 shows that in many categories a significant number of users are still having problems even getting their hardware to work properly.

The biggest embarrassment category is printers where more than 10% of installations failed. For Windows 7 Microsoft is hoping its new integrated approach in Windows 7 to device management will allow more successful installations of multi-function printers which in Vista often show up as multiple devices. However if a tenth of them don’t show up at all there’s clearly some more fundamental work to be done.

Modems though utilised by far fewer people were also a major source of problems with 8.64% failing to install. (I’d hazard a guess that 3G broadband modems which are notoriously fickle under Vista are a big part of the problem here.)

“Typically anything above 3% is not good” Matichuk conceded. “If you look at printers for example we’ve got some gaps we need to work through.”

Another major challenge for Microsoft is getting more 64-bit drivers released. 64-bit versions of Vista now account for 25% of new system sales in the US though the global figures are much lower. The performance improvements of the 64-bit version have been somewhat offset by a lack of drivers. Microsoft’s own research suggests that while 92% of 32-bit Vista systems could find core drivers in the OS or online for 64-bit systems the figure is just 83%.

Getting vendors to agree to make drivers available through Windows Update had also proved a time consuming process and one that doesn’t always succeed. Currently for Vista there are more than 8000 messages in place in Windows Update pointing users to third-party sources because the drivers can’t be incorporated into Microsoft’s own update technology. “We’re continuing to add approximately 50 a week” Matichuk said.

Despite those challenges Matichuk remains hopeful that driver nirvana can be reached. “Imagine that once the OS gets released right out of the box devices just work. We need to nail this for Windows 7.”

The most crucial moment for achieving that goal may have already passed though. Matichuk suggested that drivers included as part of Microsoft’s Inbox program and thus in the core OS at installation would already need to be present in the pre-beta in order to ensure widespread compatibility. “Ultimately you need those drivers into the beta build.” Other device manufacturers could ensure a successful installation by making their drivers online via Windows Update he said.

Microsoft’s official internal goal is that 90% of systems should be able to access all drivers needed for Windows 7 via the built-in systems and Windows Update. “We’re tracking this as a metric by the time we hit RTM we want to have at least 90% covered. It’d be great if we could get 95% or higher but 90% is the goal we’re going to go for.