Vista… 64-bit… Where’s My Headroom?

Other than a couple of virtual machine beta builds, I had managed to stay out of Vista entirely until the last month or so. Since then I’ve tried to install on three machines–a client’s Dell Optiplex, which never was able to boot after install, and two home-built systems. This weekend I built a brand new system out of all Vista-logo components. It booted; Vista reported the hardware compatible; it even got a 5.8 experience index score. But I had continuous crashing of both IE and Windows Explorer. Also, on what should have been basically the fastest hardware available, the Vista with SP1 install took over 90 minutes.

I’m walking away. My current approach for my development machine is going to be Windows Server 2008 Standard 64-bit. Again I have certified components, but 64-bit in itself represents a struggle in terms of driver and application compatibility. We’ve had 64-bit CPUs in our machines for going on 5 years, and 64-bit Windows options for almost as long, and yet you still cannot run common programs and drivers in the environment–Flash, TWAIN, most VPN software, the list of things you can’t do (or do well) is astoundingly comprehensive.

We’re heading toward a very real wall here: 32-bit versions of Vista (as with other flavors of Windows) are limited to 4GB of RAM. Yet that is simply not enough for Vista plus any serious suite of applications. At the same time, 64-bit Windows still isn’t a truly viable desktop for most users. Out of necessity, I’ll compromise on many fronts–multimedia capability, peripheral compatibility, native software availability–but some of this stuff isn’t easily virtualizable, so I’m looking at the possibility of having to keep 32-bit systems around (for example for scanning, connecting to client VPNs, etc.). I’m really starting to feel hemmed in.

I guess I could take a step back here and look at it from the Mac perspective. It works because it’s broken; it’s broken because it works. That is, by forcing a switch to 64-bit Server I’m pruning the 16- and 32-bit dead wood that’s keeping me in the 4-gigabyte sandbox. Apple users long ago embraced obsolescence as a feature. Vista and 64-bit computing may (finally) force the Windows side of the PC world to wake up to this. Or maybe not. There’s a downside to the Mac example: “performance” in an absolute sense is to some extent irrelevant, and scaling up doesn’t necessarily have to be as smooth or cheap as we’re used to, as long as the chrome is shiny and doesn’t peel off too obviously.

This issue bears similarities to the current Internet Explorer 8 web standards argument–do we break the web (force IE8 standards mode, cripple billions of web pages) to move toward the Platonic ideal of standards? Do we break the PC ecosystem (Vista, 64-bit) for the hope of increased functionality and capacity in the next generation of platforms (available today, but considered unusable by the consumer)? You know it’s a tough question when even Joel Spolsky can’t tell you the answer. But generally, culturally, we’re not long-term investors, certainly not when the benefits are nebulous and far off and the pain points are obvious and immediate. As Joel argues, for web standards under IE this is a late-bound issue–they can throw the switch any time to go back to a more relaxed mode. But the issue of Vista running out of memory and 64-bit versions not being ready for prime time is a lot harder to resolve.

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