Windows 7's 'XP mode': Glitches and annoyances

A closer look at Virtual XP mode shows lots of potential -- for headaches!

Last week I wrote about my dissatisfaction with Microsoft's approach to Virtual Windows XP Mode for Windows 7. Now, after a week of poking, prodding, and tweaking the beta version, I'm convinced that XP mode isn't so much a gift from Microsoft as it is potential curse to IT shops everywhere.

As I noted in my formal review of the beta XP mode release, a primary concern will be the need to maintain two separate OS images: one for the local host system (Windows 7) and another for the virtualized XP mode image (Windows XP). However, there are numerous minor -- and some major -- usability gotchas that will likely frustrate both end-users and support professionals.

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For example, there's the lack of drag-and-drop support. Virtualized applications, even when running seamlessly on the local desktop, cannot accept drag-and-drop actions from other programs running outside of the XP mode VM. So if, like me, you're in the habit of dragging data files from Explorer and dropping them onto the title bar of an associated application, you'll no doubt find this limitation quite frustrating. The same holds true for dragging data between application windows: You can do so only if both of the applications are running inside the VM. There is simply no host-to-guest drag and drop -- not even to/from the virtualized desktop.

Another annoyance is the poor integration with Windows 7's Aero. None of the new Aero gestures (such as snap and shake) work with virtualized application windows, nor do they get proper Taskbar thumbnails: All running virtualized applications are lumped under a single Virtual PC icon, and there is no live preview for these entries (transparency is also disabled). After getting accustomed to the richer UI of Vista/Windows 7, switching back to these "legacy" applications feels anachronistic.

And finally, there is the matter of the virtualized XP's notification icons appearing on the taskbar tray area of the local Windows 7 desktop. Not only do the icons render poorly -- the product of a mismatch between the old XP and newer Windows 7 icon formats -- they have the potential to confuse novice users who barely grasp the concept of VMs, let alone the idea that another OS is running in the background. I can already hear the panicked support calls as customers try to figure out why Windows 7 keeps bugging them to "check their security alerts." (Hint: It's not -- that's Windows XP talking.) Worse, still, when they click on that urgent red icon, the wrong (XP) Security Center dialog appears (must be a virus)!

All of this integration awkwardness can be traced directly back to the underlying Virtual PC 7 platform, which uses the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to provide the actual display logic for each VM. RDP was never designed to handle local application integration, and the rough edges are apparent throughout the XP mode experience: sluggish window repainting; lots of "shearing" and other on-screen artifacts; and weird rendering quirks, like a complete lack of window borders for applications running in seamless mode. It's an ugly, ill-fitting solution that feels cobbled together.

Of course, it didn't have to be this way. As I mentioned in my previous post, Microsoft has the technology (App-V) to effectively integrate legacy applications without resorting to the jarring, disjointed VM model. However, this would require the company investing in the necessary integration and automation mechanisms to turn a manual process (sequencing) into a seamless part of the Microsoft Installer architecture. Sadly, Microsoft chose the easy route, and the result is an uneven solution that will have IT pros shaking their heads and users shaking their fists in frustration.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.