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.