June 19, 2008

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Software fight
Can’t we all just get along?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Some things, no matter how perfect they might seem on paper, were just never meant to be. Britney and Kevin. Peanut butter and cole slaw. Star Trek and network television.

Every now and then, you find two software packages that don’t get along. I don’t even mean “Microsoft Office and Linux,” which were never designed for much synergy (though it can be achieved with the right emulator). No, I mean two programs, maybe seemingly simple things, that are made to run on the same platform, same operating system, and each run perfectly fine separately, but put them on the same machine and wacky things start happening.

If you’re lucky, you only see problems when you run the programs at the same time. You’ve been using your favorite photo editor for years, say, and then after you install some random music player and are bopping away to some tunes, the photo editor crashes every time you try to open it. You might not even notice right away if you usually retouch sans audio entertainment, so you foolishly think you’ve suddenly caught a virus, or your Windows installation has become damaged.

The most common form of conflict used to happen when a new program replaced a shared module called a Dynamic Link Library (DLL). Multiple programs would use the same DLL, so having the wrong version could affect seemingly unrelated programs. This is a lot less prevalent in Windows 2000 and newer, because programmers can now keep their required DLLs separate from shared ones in the vast storage and memory of today’s computers.

Even while so-called “DLL hell” is largely behind us, applications can still interfere with each other. Errant coders might re-write essential registry values that other installers haven’t protected adequately. Two programs might, for whatever reason, be stubbornly trying to access the same chunk of system memory, and nothing gets done until one gives up or is forced to quit.

If a program loads a piece of itself into memory whenever Windows starts up, the conflict can be even more frustrating. You might not even know the bad program is running, just that an old program is suddenly giving you problems.

Even more obnoxious is when it’s Windows itself that’s causing issues. Yes, believe it or not, operating system updates themselves can cause some programs to stop working properly. Most often it’s because of a security improvement; if a program depended on using a certain port for connecting to the Internet, for example, the easy and insecure route to that port through your system might be cut off by an update. At least in this case, the program developer will probably hear about the problem fairly quickly, since it’ll affect a great number of users at once. That allows a patch to come out that fixes everything.

You can always check for program updates, but sometimes the solution is to install an older version of software that’s causing conflicts. It might have fewer features or just not have the offending code inside it yet. Just be sure to completely uninstall the bad software first.

Assuming, of course, that the developer at least programmed the uninstaller correctly..