Marko Pohjola knows tech. But even a consultant for a Web hosting company can find himself spending hours trying to find the drivers he needs to make some of his gadgets work with Windows Vista, Microsoft’s new operating system.
“Some of the device drivers were already included in the Windows Vista device database, like my Microsoft wireless mouse,” when Vista was released in January, he said.
But that hasn’t been the case for some of his gadgets, such as an ultra-secure flash drive and a USB bar code reader.
Drivers are software programs that are critical to making those kinds of devices and other hardware, from video cards to printers, play nicely with and communicate with a computer’s operating system.
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They don’t have the sex appeal of MP3 players, SmartPhones or digital cameras. Yet without updated drivers for Vista, some of those gadgets may not work with Vista, and it could start to feel like it’s 2001.
That’s when Microsoft’s last major Windows revision, XP, was released.
Since then, there has been an explosion in the numbers and types of gadgets consumers are using with their computers that require drivers, everything from TV tuner cards to home networking routers to more sophisticated gaming cards. All of them need drivers in order to work with a PC.
When Vista launched, Microsoft made available 30,000 drivers, serving 1.7 million devices, said Dave Wascha, the company’s director of platform partner product management.
Every month, he said, the company is adding between 1,500 and 2,000 drivers, or manufacturer links to them, at its support Web site.
Wascha recommends Vista users take advantage of the Windows Update feature, where many drivers being added can be found.
Even so, every day, the hunt for Vista drivers can still be elusive, time-consuming and frustrating.
Web message boards and blogs are filled with rants and pleas for help to find the right drivers for beloved or much-used devices that worked perfectly fine with Windows XP, but are not working at all with Vista.
“Installed Vista, used for a week or so and uninstalled (went back to XP),” wrote “12thplanet” on msnbc.com’s message board in March.
“HP did not and will not provide drivers for my 7400C Scanjet. I was able to find a third-party driver, but none of the HP application software would load.”
The scanner retailed for $499 in 2001, when it was released.
“Currently, there is no Windows Vista driver available for your HP product,” the company says on its Web site, although it adds: “HP is currently working to make the HP driver solution for your product available as soon as possible.”
John Crandall, HP’s director of strategic alliances in the company’s imaging and printing group, said a driver for the 7400C is coming.
But a look at the scanner’s history, and how drivers are developed, provides insight into the driver time lag on some products.
Although the scanner went on the market in 2001, “it was probably designed in 1999, when there was an anticipation of XP in mind, not Vista,” Crandall said.
The imaging and printing division started working on Vista in the spring of 2002; the company stopped selling the 7400C in 2003, he said.
The division has “a plan of (Vista driver) support for 450 ‘legacy’ imaging and printing products,” based on what it hears from customers, Crandall said.
At Vista’s launch, 280 HP drivers for various imaging and printing products were included on the Vista installation disc, he said.
Wascha, of Microsoft, said that the company worked with “thousands of partners” during the development phase of Vista, most of whom have been responsible and responsive to creating drivers that will work with the new OS.
But, he said, some companies aren’t, whether it’s for lack of interest or funding.
“Some don’t answer the phone, and some are out of business,” he said.
Robert McLaws, a software consultant who runs the Windows Now Web site, was among the beta testers of Vista for three years before its release.
“It’s not like Vista was any surprise” for manufacturers, he said.
“There was three to five years’ lead time for hardware vendors. Some aren’t interested in committing resources until much later in the game.”
McLaws said that Microsoft has “banks and banks of computers to test (drivers) with obscure vendors. But Microsoft can only drag vendors so far. It’s got to be up to the companies to provide the drivers” for testing.
Will there ever come a time when drivers aren’t needed?
“There’s never going to be a driver-free world,” said Crandall of HP.
“But we are working on ways to make them much more simpler,” and in some cases, more “universal.”
HP’s “Picture Transfer Protocol,” for example, he said, is the kind of driver that can be used with any HP camera to connect to “any Microsoft product since Millennium Edition (Me), and transfer photos to a computer.”
“As long as peripherals become more and more sophisticated and complex, they also require more and more additional software, including device drivers,” said Pohjola, the consultant.
He said the driver problem “is not only limited to Windows versions, It’s also an issue with different Linux- and UNIX-platforms running on PC hardware.
“A good example is my USB DigiTV tuner. I haven’t succeeded to get it work with any kind of OS yet.”