Turn, Turn, Turn

— 3:37 PM on April 15, 2007

As PC enthusiasts we understand technology lifecycles. They're our bread and butter. We plan major purchases around new CPUs and microarchitecures from Intel and AMD every year or two and something new from NVidia and AT.. AMD every 6 to 9 months. Against the backdrop of this relentless change we have the anomalous fact that the majority of us have been using the same operating system for more than 5 years. This is not normal. OS vendors like Apple and RedHat have been making releases every 18-24 months in the interim. For Windows, though, it's been so long since a release that everyone seems to have forgotten how to handle the transition across major OS revisions.

All of this was made painfully clear to me last week when I installed Vista on my 6-month old Fujitsu Stylistic 5032 tablet PC. I assumed I had every reason to upgrade: new drivers, new display framework, better power management and improved tablet functionality. I had no idea what I was in for. The installation went smoothly with the minor exception that I had to plug in a USB mouse because the driver for the tablet pen digitizer wasn't loaded for the first few screens. I figured that with a PC that's been on the market for about 2 years, Vista would include WHQL drivers for everything in it. I was mostly right, video, storage, input and networking all worked immediately. Needing drivers for just fingerprint, bluetooth and audio devices I went to Fujitsu's driver website where I found... nothing. No Vista drivers for my tablet, and a short list of products that do support the new OS. While they do have Vista support for their new slate model tablet, that model wasn't even available when my 5032 was purchased.

Marching onwards in sound-card-driver-free silence, I moved on to configuring wireless. My employer uses the Cisco LEAP authentication protocol, which I quickly learned is no longer of interest to Microsoft, Intel or even Cisco. While LEAP has been supported natively by Mac OS, and pretty widely on Windows via third party utilities, like ProSet for Intel wireless chipsets, support on Vista is nonexistent. Vista does not support it itself, and even though the OS has been available in final form for 6 months, not even Cisco has a functional LEAP client available yet.

Since I'm too cheap to pay for a therapist I unloaded all this on Scott and he had his own set of lifecycle-induced woes to commiserate on. People think he's nuts for moving his test rigs to 64-bit Vista. The limitations of 32-bit operating systems are well known and widely experienced, especially when 4 gigabytes of RAM can be had for less than $300. Despite that, 64-bit Vista is still not being taken as a serious platform for enthusiasts. More than 4 gigabytes of RAM has benefits in real-world workloads like virtualization and even games like supreme commander. There is no way we can reap those benefits while still being stuck with a 32-bit operating system because some required utility or driver refuses to support anything else.

All of these issues lead me to this conclusion: our entire industry has a fundamental problem with how it approaches technology lifecycles. It hasn't helped that Microsoft failed so spectacularly with vista's execution and led some to believe a 5-year OS lifecycle was natural. Microsoft has stated that their intended lifecycle for windows is 18-24 months. If Microsoft is able to execute that plan it will be clearly unacceptable for hardware vendors like Fujitsu to support only a single OS revision. Vista's successor will be released and XP will be out of mainstream support before my tablet is 3 years old. Software vendors have failed to deliver just as badly. By neglecting to test on and support Vista and 64-bit systems they have tried to pretend these lifecycle issues don't exist. IT staff like me are to blame as well. If I had loaded vista 6 months ago when it became available, I could have brought attention to the wireless problems before the users we support discovered the problem.

I don't have any great suggestions for resolving this, but awareness is a start. We are all so busy working on current problems that we devote little or no time to planning for the future. Technology lifecycles are unavoidable. Hardware vendors, software developers and IT specialists are all failing to deliver what customers need when we ignore them.

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