Analysts: Upgrading to Vista SP1 on Intel Chips? Proceed with Caution

PCs made by Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, China's Lenovo and others couldn't be upgraded to Vista Service Pack 1 if they were using certain Intel chipsets.

Microsoft's Vista OS and Intel chipset compatibility problems aren't about technology as much as they're about the number of IT developers using Windows products, the increasingly short upgrade cycles, and the political nature of the relationship between software and hardware, experts say.

Late last week, it was revealed that PCs made by Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, China's Lenovo and others couldn't be upgraded to Vista Service Pack 1 if they were using certain Intel chipsets.

These chipsets power, among other things, display drivers from Intel and a software driver for Symantec's Endpoint Protection 11.0 and Network Access Control products.

"For Microsoft with Vista and Intel and Symantec, [Microsoft] has to make an allowance for an enormous install base," said Morgan Reed, a software developer and spokesman for the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) in Washington, D.C. "When you roll out Vista, you have to make sure your OS covers all of these ancillary processes and can support all of these third-party applications and hardware and vice versa and, more often than not, there's going to be an agility problem with several pieces of hardware causing interoperability issues with other software, as well."

The chipset and driver incompatibility issue dates back to last year and Vista's launch, as court documents containing e-mails from a pending lawsuit involving Microsoft reveal.

In one particular e-mail, Microsoft General Manager John Kalkman intimated that Redmond had to lower Vista's hardware compatibility parameters to give Intel time to catch up. In a February 2007 e-mail to Scott Di Valerio, then the software giant's executive liaison to hardware concerns, Kalkman wrote:

"In the end, we lowered the requirement to help Intel make their quarterly earnings so they could continue to sell motherboards with the 915 graphics embedded. This in turn did two things: 1. Decreased focus of OEMs planning and shipping higher end graphics for Vista-ready programs and 2. Reduced the focus by IHV's to ready great Windows Hardware Quality Labs qualified graphics drivers. We can see this today with Intel's inability to ship a compelling full featured 945 graphics driver for Windows Vista."

While most of the issues outlined in that e-mail have been rectified, the nature of the relationship between new hardware and new software remains the same, the tendency for blame just as palpable, and the headache for third-party application companies and developers still throbbing.

"It's really a bind for Microsoft," Reed said. "It's like, how much do you have to do to build a platform that's immediately ready to go for all, that's user-friendly for all right out of the box?"

Intel and Symantec: We're Aware of the Issue
Microsoft made Vista SP1 widely available for the first time on Tuesday, March 18. The update included more than 300 hotfixes designed to improve the operating system's speed, security and stability. But users running Symantec software will have to sit tight and wait for an upgrade to the new service pack.

For its part, Symantec said the following in an e-mailed statement to

"Symantec is aware of the issue and has updated the affected driver for customers who would like to install Vista SP1. The currently available versions of Symantec Endpoint Protection and Symantec Network Access Control are not certified for use with Vista SP1 and could potentially be impacted by the [Intel] issue. "

The statement continued:

"The next upcoming Maintenance Release of Symantec Endpoint Protection and Symantec Network Access Control, which is currently with beta customers and due to be available for general release in the coming weeks, will be fully certified for Vista SP1 and will include an updated driver which is not impacted by this issue."

Meanwhile, on the Intel issue, Microsoft maintains that certain drivers were causing "technical issues" after SP1 was installed on various customers' workstations. This is why Redmond configured Windows Update to prevent Vista users whose PCs contain certain device drivers from downloading Vista SP1 in the first place.

While Symantec users have a couple of weeks' lead time for Vista SP1, an Intel spokesperson said in a separate e-mail that Intel's latest Graphics Media Accelerator Driver for Vista began allowing users to download SP1 beginning on Monday, March 24.

That driver, which Intel updated on Feb. 21, allows PCs running the Intel G31, G33, G35, Q33, Q35, G965, Q965, Q963, 946GZ, 945G and 945GZ Express desktop chipsets to download Vista SP1 from Windows Update.

A list of drivers that may still cause problems with the upgrade are outlined in this Knowledge Base article posted preemptively by Microsoft in February. For IT pros who haven't upgraded to SP1, Redmond has recommended perusing the Knowledge Base item before installing the upgrade.

The good thing, as experts and spokespeople at Microsoft, Symantec and Intel alike point out, is that Vista SP1 won't become a compulsory upgrade until the middle of April, and then only on computers that have Windows Update set to automatic download.

That said, Reed contended that hardware makers may encounter similar problems not only with future Redmond-issued service pack releases but also with Google's Android open source OS platform and even with certain virtual machines and applications that help foster virtualization computing.

"This is going to be particularly crucial in the enterprise space, where you really want to streamline workflow and also save power," Reed said. "The hardware/software issue is going to continue to be a challenge as developers, manufacturers and even IT guys at different companies themselves try to figure out what chipset needs to be emulated in what environment and on what platform. That's why they call what a computer does 'processing,' I guess. Because it's going to continue to be a process."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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