Forced software upgrades can add up for Vista users

Windows users contemplating the cost of upgrading to Vista may need a fatter wallet than they thought.

Besides shelling out for faster hardware, users should expect to pay for Vista upgrades for many of their favorite Windows software.

Rather than releasing free patches to update existing versions, leading vendors such as Adobe Systems Inc., Symantec Corp. and Intuit Inc. are choosing to add Vista compatibility only to new releases or still-in-development future products. Most of these new versions will add significant features along with Vista compatibility. And, vendors will argue, if Vista compatibility is a new feature, what's unfair about packaging a new feature only in new versions of their software, rather than going back and patching aging versions nearing the end of their product life cycle?

Still, many customers who are happy with their existing software may look askance at what they consider less-than-subtle attempts to coerce them to upgrade. And that, according to analysts, could rebound on Microsoft as well as Windows software vendors by prompting users to hold off Vista upgrades or consider switching to another operating system altogether.

Technical shift from XP to Vista seen as 'incremental'

How software vendors handle transitions for operating systems has long been a delicate, high-stakes issue. Move to a new platform too slowly, and you risk ending up like Lotus Software's 1-2-3, the dominant spreadsheet on DOS in the late 1980s that lost its lead to Microsoft Excel in part because it was belatedly ported to Windows.

But abandon an older platform too quickly, and you risk alienating loyal, long-term users.

Microsoft claims that there are already "thousands of applications" compatible with Vista, according to a spokeswoman. She acknowledged, however, that few have been formally tested.

Some outside experts agree, pointing out that in the grand scheme of Windows' evolution, the shift from XP to Vista is relatively minor. "Going from Windows 95 and 98 to Windows 2000 and XP was a revolutionary shift. The move from XP and Vista is more incremental," said Scott Matsumoto, a principal consultant at software consulting firm Cigital Inc. In general, porting software from XP to Vista will require developers to "make lots of little changes," rather than massive rewrites, he said.

That's unlikely to be the view shared by vendors actually bearing the cost of developing, testing and supporting their software on different platforms.

Most affected: security and multimedia software

Enhancements to Vista's security and installation process are causing extra work for security and disk utility vendors. Meanwhile, a new graphics infrastructure such as the DirectX 10 API and Windows Presentation Foundation are creating headaches for game and multimedia vendors.

Take Adobe. About a third of Adobe's software doesn't run on Vista today. Another half runs, but with some known issues (download PDF).

The company has released free Vista updates for some of its lower-priced consumer products, such as Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements. It also plans to release free updates to Acrobat 8 and Reader 8 by the middle of the year.

But Adobe also has no plans to update existing versions of its pricey professional and prosumer products, such as Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Flash and After Effects for Vista. Instead, it plans to issue new Vista-compatible upgrades within the next six months that will cost between US$100 and $200 for an upgrade, with full versions costing more.

Some products that Adobe was already planning to discontinue, such as PageMaker and Macromedia FreeHand, won't be ported to Vista at all.

Adobe declined to comment, saying it will make another announcement in several months.

Symantec is only releasing free Vista patches for the latest versions of products such as Norton AntiVirus, Norton Internet Security and Norton Confidential, which are only available to current subscribers. Users of utility products that don't require a subscription, such as Norton Ghost and Norton Save & Restore, will have to purchase the next version to get Vista compatibility.

Vista's compatibility mode imperfect, admits one vendor

Meanwhile, Intuit is only guaranteeing that 2007 versions of its popular Quicken and QuickBooks finance software -- both released last fall -- will work on Vista.

Intuit has no plans to correct problems in older versions of its software, nor offer free support to users of those older versions.

Instead, Intuit suggests that users try running their existing software under Vista's compatibility mode, which can emulate older flavors of Windows. But it acknowledges that errors will likely still occur.

Microsoft also doesn't escape unscathed. By far, the company has the most applications of any vendor on its own list of verified Vista applications, with 105. But many of its applications that are still popular on Windows XP have not yet been patched for Vista nor officially certified as running fine on Vista. They include all versions of Microsoft Office prior to 2003, all versions of Microsoft Money prior to 2006, versions of Microsoft Works prior to 8 and versions of SQL Server prior to 2005.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said that though it doesn't plan to formally test its older products for Vista-compatibility, most of them should work.

Vista support as a competitive tool

Some vendors view free Vista support as a way to gain customer goodwill. Corel Corp. has released, or plans to release, free Vista updates for the latest version of software available as of Vista's January launch. That includes products as old in its lifecycle as its Corel's Designer Technical Suite 12, which was introduced in February 2005.

Corel is "committed to ensuring that our core applications are available on Vista, and we think it is critical to continue supporting the Windows versions that our customers are using today," said a spokeswoman. "Ultimately, we're committed to providing our customers with the flexibility to run the version of Windows that they choose, while giving them the peace of mind of knowing their Corel applications will be ready for Vista when they decide to make the move."

Corel even released a beta of a new product, WordPerfect Lightning, earlier this week for both Vista and XP.

Still, the company's record is not spotless. For one product, Corel Painter, it only plans to offer Vista support for Version 10 released last month, skipping the two-year-old Version 9.

Then there's ACD Systems International Inc., which, like Corel, is also an Adobe competitor. It hopes to release a free Vista update to the current Version 9 of its ACDSee Photo Manager by the end of March, according to Brian Harris, director of marketing. "We are confident that sales of our products will more than justify the extra level of effort we have put in to Vista certification," he said.

Other vendors porting existing versions of their software to Vista include EMC Corp., which re-released Version 7.5 of its Retrospect hard drive backup software in mid-February with Vista support; Paragon Software Group, which released a Vista-compatible version of its Drive Backup 8.5 software in the same month; and PGP Corp., which released the beta 9.6 version of its PGP Desktop encryption software in mid-February.

Not all users will care. Large corporations, which generally pay for high-priced maintenance contracts such as Microsoft's Software Assurance that guarantee them the latest upgrades, may yawn. Nor will essentially charging customers for Vista support generate equal amounts of resentment. For many antivirus and antispyware applications, consumers and small businesses are already conditioned to pay annual subscription fees to get the latest updates and malware definitions.

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