Windows Vista: a Cautionary Tale

Since i’m the New Guy at work, along with my new box, i’ve had Windows Vista for several weeks now, ahead of all the eager crowds. So far, with the exception of a few nice features like searching from the start menu, i haven’t been too impressed.
My latest adventure started innocently enough, adding a little content to a file with my favorite XML editor so i could see how it got rendered in our app. Curiously, when i looked at the files in the folder, it didn’t look like the time stamp had changed. I figured i’d just modified the wrong one of several different versions, so i retraced my steps: nope, that was the right file. This is weird, i thought, so i re-opened the file from the folder, and all my content was there. I saved it again … no changes to the directory listing.

I fiddled with a few file and folder permissions (initially it had been read-only), but couldn’t get the directory listing to tell me the truth. Puzzled, i tried opening the file with Notepad, and fell headlong into some kind of parallel universe: the changed content was gone, and the file had reverted to its original content. What?!? I went back and opened it again with the original editor: my changes were there, just as i made them. I opened it with Notepad, then Wordpad: my changes were gone.

I’m chagrined to admit that i did this for at least 20 minutes, trying to prove to myself that i wasn’t seeing what i was seeing, and was just making some dumb mistake: what more basic service can an OS provide than showing the attributes of files and delivering their content to applications? I went to our sys admin and said “i think i’m losing my mind: do you want to watch?”. He did, and we tried several more tests. Looking at the file properties, it had a modification time of yesterday, but a creation time of … 10 minutes ago?!? Copying the file (which lived in Program Files with its application) to the desktop made it normal: every editor then told the truth. We opened the file with half a dozen different editors, which lined up neatly into two camps: MS apps (Notepad, Wordpad, MSWord, Visual Studio, even the DOS type command) that lied about the content, and every other editor that told the truth and showed me my changes. We pulled another colleague in to watch the spectacle.

At this point my readers are probably in two camps: some are utterly flummoxed (like i was), and others are chuckling at my naivete or knowingly tsk-tsk’ing, wondering how i could have missed hearing about this wonderful new thing in Vista. It took another half an hour and one of our savvy developers to explain that this was a feature, not a bug. You’re not supposed to edit things in Program Files, and Vista helps you with that by hiding such edits in a parallel universe called Compatability Files. He showed me the button Compatibility Files button from Windows Vista that had unobtrusively appeared on the window to alert me to the fact that i’d entered this weird place. Vista-aware apps were playing by the new rules, and non-aware ones (all the normal ones that i actually use every day) were blissfully opening the one i wasn’t supposed to have created in the first place. And by using a cool new Vista feature called symlinks (old Unix hands, it’s your turn to chuckle now), you just create a link to a folder outside Program Files, and then things behave like they’re supposed to.

Well, maybe: but it felt a little like taking a walk in the woods behind your new high-tech house, stepping off the path to pick up a walking stick, and getting attacked by a mechanical bear. After you wrestle the bear to the ground, you find out this bear is designed to keep you and your sticks secure (after all, you could poke your eye out), so the bear was for your own good, and if you use the Stick Supply House instead of just picking up random sticks, everything will be okay. But i’ve gotten used to picking up sticks in the woods, and they’re my woods, after all.

Anyway, you’ve been warned: there are bears in the woods.

12 thoughts on “Windows Vista: a Cautionary Tale”

  1. That’s a good example of why MS products are so frustrating. A similar example: I keep several copies of my program’s source tree on the harddrive, basically one copy for each feature I’m working on. I named these ..

    The problem is that nmake gets very distressed about dirs that contain a dot in their names. To cope (on XP anyway) nmake creates a new directory with a generated name that sort of exists, and acts more or less as a unix-style link to the actual directory. So you can ‘cd c:\87sff~’ (or whatever), and end up in the c:\programname.featurename dir, though ‘dir c:\’ will not show this directory thingy.

    Another example is that MS has some sort of handler that will kick in when File Explorer hits a magic directory, eg somewhere in the IE cache in a hidden dir. My wife’s computer had file perm problems after I copied her home dir to a new machine. It took me hours to figure out that the program that changes file perms will halt when it hits a hidden dir. so you have to run it once to unhide all the dirs, then again to set the perms inside the previously hidden dirs. this is only the tip of the iceberg though, there was much much more to fix.

    I don’t even use windows, I have to learn this tripe for friends and contract assignments. though not perfect at least Unix is rational.

    I used to work at MS. New hires would ask me how to fix weird dll problems and such, and I’d smile and say, time to pave that box son. I admit that their OS’s are worth fixing rather than re-installing since NT4, but lord god is it frustrating. At least with Linux you can look up error msgs on the web and fix them, Windows error messages not so much.

    thanks for listening to my rant.

  2. Oi, WordPress edited out something I put between angle brackets:

    … basically one copy for each feature I’m working on. I named these c:\programname.featurename.

  3. That’s interesting.
    I am also rat at work to try vista and I had big problems to install two apps:
    Microsoft sql server management tools and FastReport studio

    That troubles may be connected with this feature, I think.

  4. You guys are masochist… you insist in using that crap named windoze.
    open your mind and get rid of this crap.

    Leopard is coming.

  5. Ah, my intuition is alert. The phrase “…to explain that this was a feature, not a bug” has me alert. I’ve worked with several different marketing groups during my career as an engineer. There is the adage: “If you have a quirk, a bug, a defect…. sell it as a benefit.” Sell it as if it is the best thing since sliced bread and that it is there for all customers’ benefits. Now, I don’t know for certain. However I’ve never encountered a situation when a “benefit” that frustrates a customer and when that benefit has to be laboriously explained (1/2 hour to convice you something simple is for your benefit? Wow.) that the “benefit” was really a defect. Microsoft is most likely engaging in a coverup in the disguise of “We did this to help you.” Many of the defects I’ve seen of this type are due to either cost cutting or a bad decision made early in the design and the manufacturer is now unwilling to go back and make corrections from the beginning. Intuitively, I just don’t believe it is a benefit. I trust my intuition.

  6. So there I was, half awake, just fired up the computer and sipping on coffee. aargh. I was regretting the willful sins that I had been commiting. I looked up and I saw the “Couldn’t find Server” message. egad… The people at Zone Alarm have to be aware of this issue, it’s been around for so long. So I start clicking randomly on the links in my Bookmarks Toolbar Folder to get around it, when presto!, it starts to load “popurls” website. I happen to see a link to Bill’s latest virulent venture, Vista. Hmm.. Blogos..oh, like logos, as in kai theos nv o logos. No wonder I had “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in my head when I woke up. God is so faithful and so forgiving. It was His way of encouraging me, saying to me, keep pressing on. Thank you, brother for stepping out in faith with your blog, your having an impact.

  7. I just got burned today. I ran Vista advisor and my laptop had no issues. I attempted to install Home Premium Upgrade over XP Pro and it said I needed Business or Ultimate. It wanted to wipe out all my data to install the Home Premium upgrade. So now I would have to spend yet more money since I can’t return this. I’m selling my Home Premium at half price. I’m buy a Mac Book – screw this!

  8. OOPS! angle brackets make the post go bye-bye.
    Y’know, the nice thing about MS is the bad thing about MS – everything they do is handled by a different department.

    That’s why Visual FoxPro rocks, and why Access *sucks* rocks.

    On the down-side, it’s a new OS and will (as always) have bugs. I’d wait to upgrade for at least 6 months. If you’re a developer like me, then put it on a test machine to mess with, but don’t convert your clients, or your NOC to it immediately. If XP is doing the job, why screw with it, eh?

    On the up-shot, when everyone gets used to Vista, I think it’ll be a pretty nice OS, and features like this (once we’ve got the heads up, thanks to people like you).

    (To the hardcore mac/linux people: I love linux. Mac, less so. The only nice thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about MAC OS is that is ISN’T MS. That’s like saying that a gaping chest wound is nice because at least it isn’t brain cancer.)
    But here’s the thing – macs are expensive, and the XP emulator (why not just get XP?) doesn’t always do quite what it’s supposed to do. They’re harder to program actual compiled EXE’s for, interpreted develoment environments for mac (like perl) aren’t as well written, and almost noone is going to buy the software I write for it anyway.

    As to linux, I wuv my wittwe SuSE machine, but I ain’t gonna put it on a paralegal’s computer and say “here! do your filing.” It’s just not practical. Sooo, like it or not, we’re gonna have to get used to vista. I don’t think it’ll be THAT painful, especially if we’re aware of quirks like this beforehand. Thanks for a great article!

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