Apple, not Gear, deserves the blame for iTunes crashes

Summary:It’s now been a week since Apple’s botched release of iTunes 8, which caused a tidal wave of Vista crashes before it was hastily rolled back. Judging from traffic on Apple’s support forum, pulling the new Apple USB driver and replacing it with the file from iTunes 7.7 succeeded in quieting most of the complaints from most Windows users, although a handful of customers report that they’re still having problems. After looking more closely at the other driver, from Gear Software, I've concluded that it was unrelated to these crashes and might even be an innocent bystander in another iTunes support headache involving missing CD and DVD drive letters.

It’s now been a week since Apple’s botched release of iTunes 8, which caused a tidal wave of Vista crashes before it was hastily rolled back. Judging from traffic on Apple’s support forum, pulling the new Apple USB driver and replacing it with the file from iTunes 7.7 succeeded in quieting most of the complaints from most Windows users, although a handful of customers report that they’re still having problems.

In my analysis last week, I confirmed that Apple was sneaking a couple of driver updates onto the system along with the five installer packages that make up iTunes 8. The USB controller update, which is apparently used when connecting an iPod or iPhone to the system, was tagged as the one appearing on the STOP error page in most of the trouble reports on the Apple forum. That’s the one that got rolled back.

In last week’s post, I also noted that an update to the GEARAspiWDM.sys driver was installed as well. I speculated that this driver might be involved in some of the problem reports, but that turned out not to be the case. This driver had nothing to do with any of the Blue Screen of Death errors I read about. In fact, it turns out that Gear’s driver might actually be an innocent bystander in another iTunes –related support issue.

First, a little background. Gear Software sells the GEARAspi driver set (a DLL and a storage filter driver) with its GEARWorks SDK, which allows third-party developers to build apps that can communicate with CD/DVD recorders, tape drives, media jukeboxes, and other such storage devices. Apple is not the only big customer that uses these drivers; Symantec, Kodak, Cakewalk, and Siemens also use Gear’s tools to enable ripping, formatting, authoring and burning features in their software. In all, there are probably tens of millions of Windows (and Mac and Linux) users running software that incorporates the Gear driver set.

Earlier this year, reports began appearing on Gear’s forum and the Apple support boards that iTunes users were encountering a well-known (but fortunately rare) issue where the CD or DVD drive icon disappeared from the Computer window. This problem has been around in Windows XP for as long as I can remember, and even has its own Knowledge Base article, which explains the Registry tweaks that have to be performed to restore access to the MIA optical drive.

The iTunes problem, as far as I can tell, first began cropping up in March and April, and by late August 26 Gear Software had posted a plea for help in tracking down the cause of the issue, naming a pair of driver files (afs.sys and afs2k.sys) as the most likely culprits. The AFS in those file names refers to Audio File System, and the drivers in question were part of a much older CD-burning engine that, like Gear's software, was sold to third-party developers. It wound up in some widely distributed products, including Broderbund Print Shop,  HP Memories Disk Creator, Liquid Audio, and Symantec Ghost. An HP support document specifically notes the likelihood that the AFS driver can cause crashes and explains how to delete or replace it. Oak Technology, which developed the older, apparently flawed drivers, was swallowed up several years ago by Zoran. Downloadable copies of a September 2003 release of the AFS drivers are available at Simpli Software; HP has a newer version, released in 2004.

I looked long and hard to find any signs of other recent problems involving Gear’s software and couldn’t find any, so I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt here. It’s also a perfect example of the complexities of testing software on the Windows platform. I suspect most of those driver conflicts occur because users install printer and scanner software from CDs that are five years old (or older). It’s hard to imagine testing for conflicts with outdated software that was patched long ago, and yet those programs persist in the real world.

And this historical footnote: If the name Oak Technology sounds familiar, then you qualify as an old-timer. MS-DOS boot disks (created by formatting a floppy with the /s switch) typically include a real-mode CD driver called Oakcdrom.sys, which was used in conjunction with Mscdex.exe to allow access to CD drives by floppy-based installers. Same company.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, CXO, Hardware, IT Employment, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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