With the release of the Windows 7 beta, there has been a lot of speculation about an accompanying version of the Application Compatibility Toolkit. Because the release of a version of ACT so frequently accompanies the release of an OS (or a significant service pack, such as Windows XP SP1), we’ve generated this perception in the community that you have to have the version of ACT that is matched up with that particular version of Windows. (We see this a lot with people who are just now deploying Windows XP SP2 – they start looking around for older versions of ACT, which are no longer available.)

ACT 5.5 is scheduled to be ready by around April. (I’ve also done a piece for TechNet Magazine with my friend Chris Corio that goes deep into the internals of ACT which should be out at around the same time – stay tuned for that.) If you plan to start getting ready for a Windows 7 deployment, do you need to wait for it?

I don’t think you do.

But, rather than me just throwing out an opinion, let me walk through the process of an application compatibility project, point out what you could do today with ACT 5.0.3 (the currently available version), and then point out what you would get in addition if you were to wait.

Collect

What you can do today with ACT 5.0

You need an inventory of what software you have in order to drive your project. ACT 5.0 will give you an excellent inventory of what you have, so you can get started today figuring out what you have in your ecosystem. In fact, I recommend it, unless…

When you should wait for ACT 5.5

There is a compelling new feature in ACT 5.5 that may be worth the wait: the ability to “tag” a DCP package. If you have the ability to target deployment of your DCPs, and you’d like to have the applications in your inventory come back reflecting where they came from, then this may be worth the wait.

ACT 5.5 will include new deprecations in the deprecation agent – specifically, the Windows Mail deprecations. If you see Outlook Express / Windows Mail displaying UI in your organization, then this may be important. But, to be honest, I don’t expect this to have a significant impact on many enterprises at all, so unless you’re particularly worried about this, it may not be worth waiting for. (Obviously it’s useful once it’s out, but do you really want to set yourself back a couple of months to get this if you’d rather get started today?)

Analyze

What you can do today with ACT 5.0

It kind of depends on how much it bugs you to see “Windows Vista” in the report category as to whether or not you’re comfortable using it.

The compatibility data will be from Windows Vista and not from Windows 7, but not only are we not breaking that many more things, it’s not as if that data was terribly good to start with (even with Windows Vista, going to windows.com/compatibility was your better option).

And, of course, if you dump your inventory into Excel to analyze, then 5.0 is fine.

When you should wait for ACT 5.5

ACT 5.5 will display Windows 7 as an option in the report listing, so that will satisfy your sense of aesthetics. In addition, because the list of operating systems is starting to get kind of big, and you’re likely to only be migrating to one at a time, you will be able to filter them and only display the one you intend to deploy. That simplifies the UI a bit.

If you are worried about the data you send up to the ACT web service, ACT 5.5 is going to add on some functionality to help. 5.0 would always send the unique Application ID up – but if you unselected it we wouldn’t send any of your evaluation data. ACT 5.5 won’t even send up the ID (as a result, you won’t be able to see any community data for this app) and the tool gives you direct visibility into the exact data that you are sending up. For folks who are concerned about this, you may want to wait for this feature before you sync.

ACT 5.5 will also be able to support syncing with the Windows Compatibility Center – so no more manually looking things up at windows.com/compatibility! My understanding is that this may not be fully ready to go when the product ships, but it will be able to support it once the service is ready to go. I think that’s going to be huge.

Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t collect your inventory now – I haven’t personally tested the database upgrade scenario, but I have been loading up my sample database with the log files from an ACT 5.0 DCP deployment, and have had no problems doing so. My guess is that we’ll elegantly handle a database upgrade from 5.0 as well (I just don’t want to promise something I haven’t tried myself).

Test and Mitigate

What you can do today with ACT 5.0

Standard User Analyzer

SUA is relatively unchanged from the ACT 5.0 version. One big change: you need AppVerifier 4.0+ on Windows 7, and only the ACT 5.5 version works with AppVerifier 4.0+. So, you’d just have to do your testing on Windows Vista or earlier.

Internet Explorer Compatibility Test Tool

IECTT supports IE8 today, so you don’t have to wait for anything to start investigating your web applications!

Setup Analysis Tool

Does anybody use the setup analysis tool? It remains, and it’s as uninteresting today as it was for Windows Vista. This could be the last time we see this tool.

Compatibility Administrator

Compatibility Administrator is relatively unchanged, and you can use it today on Windows 7 without hesitation.

When you should wait for ACT 5.5

Standard User Analyzer

If you want to test with SUA on Windows 7 itself, you’ll have to wait. But for getting started to get your apps ready for a more secure environment today, you’ll get the same functionality down-level.

Last I heard, LUA Buglight also has a version check (alas, in the driver, so you can’t shim it) that keeps it from running on Windows 7, but current builds work fine on Windows 7. Not sure when Aaron plans to release an update.

Summary

Have we filled all of the gaps with ACT 5.5? Certainly not. I’d love to do more to help people rationalize apps. I’d love to have a smooth integration story (heck, I’d take a rough one if I could just get anything). I’d like a better 64-bit story (that’s on deck). I’d like more focus on the actual process than the technology. There’s always something else I want. But there is some good stuff coming (I’ll never be satisfied anyway).

In conclusion, the ACT 5.5 story falls very much in line with the rest of the Windows 7 application compatibility story. You can get started today and not incur too much risk of a tool or feature coming along later that is killer. The tags for DCPs may be a killer feature (they’re certainly a highly requested one), but otherwise you can get started today, and the work you do with the tools you have will translate to results in the future.

If you get started with your inventory and your rationalization, then you can just expect more data to come along later to help you out. In the interim, you can at least be identifying the projects that require a lot of work, and get started on them now. It’s simply a lot smarter to get any fixes you may need (to play nicely with the new security posture begun with Windows Vista and continuing with Windows 7) by working them in to the natural development and deployment cycle of your software today, rather than it is to try to squeeze them all in at the same time only when you begin the deployment of an operating system later.

I hope this little review is helpful for formulating your tools strategy if a migration to Windows 7 is in your future…