XP Service Pack targets politics, not users

The upcoming SP1 for Windows XP specifically addresses the proposed court settlement, and won't have a significant impact on corporations.

commentary Back when Windows had version numbers, the conventional wisdom--based on informed experience--said to wait for the .1 version.

Now it says to wait for the first service pack. I've always thought this was a little simplistic; why not wait for the second service pack or the next full version after that? But anyway, it looks like it will soon be cool to get Windows XP; we're in the homestretch for the first service pack. Although this service pack is clearly a landmark for Windows and probably the most important service pack in the history of the software industry--politically as Gartner suggests--it may not mean much to you if you've been updating all along.

There are three major thrusts to this service pack: First, it bundles all the security patches and other fixes for Windows XP that have come out since the release code. Second, it includes the .Net Framework. Third, it implements some new user and OEM controls that provide greater control over the default use of (I hate using this word) "middleware."

SP1 reportedly requires a hefty 40MB of disk space, about half of which must be the .Net Framework (version 1 of the Framework was roughly a 22MB download, and there's been a 1MB service pack added to it since). SP1 adds a certain convenience to deployment of an up-to-date copy of Windows XP, but only if you are deploying one copy at a time. Large corporations typically use deployment systems, like Windows' own Remote Installation Service, which make it easy to add updates to the automated deployment process.

Several of the SP1 enhancements make up a new program called Set Programs Access and Defaults, also available as a Control Panel applet, that lets users set their middleware preferences. The four selectable settings will be Computer Manufacturer Configuration (set by the OEM), Microsoft Windows (Microsoft programs), Non-Microsoft (users select from a list of non-Microsoft programs), and Custom (users selects from all options available on the system). There are also OEM controls for defining their default choices.

Users and OEMs have had some of these capabilities since Windows XP came out; for example, they have been able to set the default browser and mail client to non-Microsoft settings and change the program entries that appear in those prominent spots at the top of the Start Menu. The new controls will also allow them to change the defaults from Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger, and Microsoft's Java VM, to alternatives.

It's been suggested that this service pack could help convince the judge to accept the proposed DOJ settlement. At first I figured that it would have no weight in this regard; after all, Microsoft has suggested that it would be impossible to implement the nine dissenting states' proposed remedies. On reflection, the service pack's existence does give the proposed settlement an advantage: Assuming that SP1 properly implements the terms of the proposed settlement (something the court shouldn't just take for granted), then the terms have been met. In contrast, the timeline for the dissenters' proposed remedies is not only uncertain--Microsoft claims it may not be doable. Whatever you think of Microsoft's claims in this regard, clearly it would be a long time before we would see any solutions to the dissenters' proposed remedy.

There was one more thing that got attention in news reports, specifically that Microsoft was disabling access to SP1 (and to future updates) from copies of Windows XP activated with a widely-pirated activation key. The interesting part of this story is that it reminds us of the moribund controversy over activation. Remember the initial reviews of Windows XP, when experts all over the Net speculated on the problems that activation would cause?

It's 32 million copies of Windows XP later and I don't remember hearing any outcry. In fact, all those observers, in their haste to find some reason why Windows XP would fail, ignored all the care Microsoft took to ensure that it wouldn't cause problems for users. Most important of all, users in large businesses basically don't have to deal with activation at all, and its rules for users who must activate at least attempt to err on the side of user. The fact that this one corporate activation crack was widely used for pirated copies of XP proves the extent to which Microsoft went to not be intrusive. But that particular avenue will certainly be closed.

I don't always agree with Gartner, but their take on this upcoming service pack is right on. This is a major political event, but it won't have a significant impact on corporations using Windows XP.

Were you waiting for SP1 to make the move to XP? Share your thoughts in our TalkBack below, or drop Larry a line.

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