Break Compatibility, Lose Loyalty

For almost 20 years I have been a fan of, and borderline apologist for, Microsoft. One of the main reasons was their focus on software usability, backed up by a visible intention to preserve backwards compatibility wherever possible. While each new release of Windows, Office, IE and Visual Studio brought new features, these were by and large an extension to rather than a replacement for that which already worked. When a compatibility break was absolutely necessary, such as with the transition to VB.NET, it was well signposted and the option to parallel run the old version well supported.

Sometime around 2007-8, maybe by coincidence just when Bill Gates retired, this all went to hell in a handcart, and since then I’ve been cursing new Microsoft software versions as much as praising them. Each release has brought frustrations, and in many cases they have been sufficiently severe to drive me to adopt a competitor’s product, or at least a third party add-on.

XP SP 2 broke WMA format so it is incompatible with most third party players. My car was new in 2008, but I have to rip CDs using an XP SP1 virtual machine. Vista broke the reliable and flexible ntbackup. It took a bit of effort to get it working again, and it’s still part of my (more complex) backup strategy, but the “heavy lifting” is now done by Acronis rather than Windows.

The disruptive user interface and file format changes of Office 2007 have been widely discussed elsewhere. Suffice to say that I never used Office 2007, and run Office 2010 only with a third party add-on which restores the old menus. The compatibility-breaking changes to follow up flags in Outlook 2010 are extremely annoying, but as yet insufficient to drive me to an alternative product.

The same is not true of the changes to Virtual Machine support in Windows 7. Before that move, I used Mirosoft’s own Virtual PC extensively. However, the loss of compatibility, features and reliability were so severe that I now only use and recommend VMWare WorkStation/Player for this purpose. You can read about my experiences here.

The latest problem, and what has prompted this blog, is the appalling state of Internet Explorer 9. I have been a faithful user of IE since V1, and have lived, fairly happily, with its limitations through to IE8. However, since “upgrading” to IE9 I have become completely disillusioned, because it just isn’t reliable enough. Here are a sample of the things which just don’t work properly:

  • Downloading dynamically-generated PDF files, such as bills from BT,
  • MasterCard SecureCard authentication. This one’s a real pain if you’re at the end of a long online purchase, and you find your main credit card won’t work,
  • The combined address / Google search bar. If I type in a valid www…. address, I expect the browser to at least attempt to use it , not do a search!
  • Printing. Some long text pages, especially from typepad blogs, get mashed with the main font/character set replaced by something unreadable,
  • Rendering some web sites readably at all. Some of the worst offenders, ironically, are Microsoft’s own “support” forums.

By direct contrast, Google Chrome seems to do a decent job of all the above. I am hereby announcing my intention to make it my primary browser whenever I have a choice.

I’m now really scared about Windows 8, with it’s so far half-hearted changes to the desktop. What will that wreck?

Now in fairness, Microsoft are not the only, or maybe even the worst offenders in this space. For example Bibble/Corel have just pushed through a change to their AfterShot Pro software which no-one wanted and which breaks a plugin I’ve written, and I suspect in that community I have some influence to say “the new version is broken, don’t use it.”

I really don’t understand Microsoft’s behaviour here. Are all these compatibility wrecks conscious decisions? If so, do the conquest sales related to cool new features really outweigh the loss of loyalty from existing users? If not, have they just got lazy and complacent? Who knows?

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One Response to Break Compatibility, Lose Loyalty

  1. Andrew says:

    I’ve just seen a report that Google Chrome is now the most popular browser, displacing IE. I’m not surprised. Microsoft need to concentrate on making sure that IE10 works, and is fully compatible with what worked in IE8, rather than just copying Chrome and getting rid of any interesting colours.

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