It has long been said that one of Microsoft’s greatest challenges has been to support the wild and unpredictable PC hardware market, stemming from the fact that unlike Apple, Microsoft has little control over the hardware that its OS comes to reside upon. True or not, one thing is certain: a bad driver can turn an otherwise stable system into a nightmare.
To help put an end to this, Microsoft is turning to a Driver Quality Rating (DQR) system that it hopes will motivate both OEMs and device manufacturers to increase their commitments to driver quality.
The DQR system relies on scores to indicate a driver’s quality level, and it derives those scores from user-submitted crash reports. Microsoft’s Online Crash Analysis Team will analyze crash reports to determine the ratio of crashing systems to non-crashing systems. Drivers that rarely cause crashes will be rated "Green," while moderately problematic drivers will be rated "Yellow." The horrid stuff gets a big, fat "Red" rating. (Microsoft has not revealed the exact methodology for determining these scores, only that "Green" maps to 7-9 points, "Yellow" 4-6, and "Red" 1-3.)
Furthermore, to achieve a "Green" status, a driver must have been released and in use for at least 120 days (starting on June 1, 2007), and must maintain its stability throughout time. Driver manufacturers (or OEMs) must rectify any problem that causes a driver’s rating to fall to "Yellow" or "Red" within 90 days, or suffer the consequences. For drivers of this sort, updates must be made available through Windows Update, as well.
The consequences of failure, while not dire, are considerable. Only drivers with a "Green" status can be used in computers that are Windows-logo certified, meaning that OEMs will have to be careful in choosing which hardware to include in their offerings. Furthermore, because "Green" hardware can be re-rated as "Yellow" or "Red" in the event that problems arise, OEMs and device manufacturers will need to look after systems even after they have shipped.
For most OEMs, design specification changes are costly. If a problem with a device driver appears down the road, Dell will have two options: remove the hardware and have another entire configuration tested by Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL) for logo certification, or address the driver’s problems. This puts Dell in the position of needing to make the best choices at the design stages, and needing the best relationships with the manufacturers they chose to work with. Perhaps best for end users, crash reports from real-world use will be counted in assessing a driver’s quality, making the stability of a system after it leaves the OEMs shipping facility arguably more important than how the box runs while the lab techs are staring at it.
This unfortunately won’t mean the death of bargain-basement PCs equipped with questionable hardware. OEMs can choose not to have their hardware certified, of course, but it is also important to note that DRQ ratings are only required for computers certified for the "Premium" Vista experience. That is, Vista Home Basic is not subject to these requirements (the only version of Vista not covered by the Premium requirement). While we feel this is regrettable, it does seem to fall in line with Microsoft’s intentions to position Home Basic as a no-frills OS.