Coming This Fall: Windows XP Service Pack 1

In a meeting last week with Windows XP Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan, I learned about the changes coming in XP Service Pack 1 (SP1), which Microsoft expects to ship late this summer. Some of the changes will benefit the enterprise—a welcome distinction after the almost single-minded consumer orientation of the original XP release. And some changes might surprise you as much as they surprised me.

XP SP1 is partly the result of customer feedback, but XP is also the first Microsoft OS release with an embedded error-reporting system customers can use to report bugs to Microsoft: When an application crashes in XP, or a similar catastrophic event occurs, a dialog box appears asking whether you'd like to supply information about the problem to Microsoft. Sullivan said that response to this feature has been excellent and that this feedback directly affected SP1 bug fixes.

"We don't get a lot of credit for this," he told me, "but the online error-reporting system is responsible for several fixes in SP1." Sullivan noted that the bug reports in XP follow a 90/10 rule: 90 percent of the problems are caused by the same 10 percent of errant applications and devices. "It really helps us find problems in the ecosystem and get them fixed quickly," Sullivan said. A future goal is for a more immediate online crash analysis: "We'd like to get to the point where we fix bugs after only a single crash," he said.

SP1 includes a rollup of approximately 40 Quick Fix Engineering (QFE) and security fixes that have appeared since Microsoft released XP last October. The rollup includes critical fixes that the company released between the XP release to manufacturing (RTM) and the XP SP1 RTM, as well as application and device compatibility updates. Sullivan also said that Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative had a direct influence on SP1. "The Windows Division underwent a rigorous code review," he said. "We've changed our entire software development process because of the Trustworthy Computing initiative." Sullivan said that the Windows Division spent most of February and March reviewing every line of code in XP and Windows 2000, looking for common coding mistakes that lead to security problems.

XP SP1 also includes some new capabilities, including USB 2.0 support, an optional Microsoft .NET Framework installation, a new Windows Messenger version, and support for the enabling technologies behind Mira, Freestyle, and the Tablet PC. Corporate users with no need for Mira, Freestyle, or Tablet PC support—or the .NET Framework—won't need to download or install these features. In fact, Mira, Freestyle, and Tablet PC support will only come with compatible hardware, Sullivan said. "These technologies will be OEM deliverables," Sullivan told me. "They will require XP SP1, but corporate customers and application compatibility will not be impacted by these new scenarios."

The exclusion of the .NET Framework as a required part of SP1 surprised me, but Sullivan said that it would just be another variable for corporate deployments at this point and that making it optional will let companies choose whether they want to install it. The next Windows version will include the .NET Framework as an integrated component.

The biggest news with XP SP1, however, is a new component called Set Program Access and Defaults, which is designed to meet the requirements of Microsoft's proposed antitrust settlement with the US government. This so-called Compliance Change adds a new icon to Add or Remove Programs and the Start Menu, letting end users determine which Microsoft middleware applications—Internet Explorer (IE), Outlook Express, Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player (WMP), and Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine (JVM)—to enable or replace. At a deeper level, OEMs and corporate administrators can determine which of these components appears in the UI and which are replaced by competitive applications, such as Mozilla, AOL, or RealONE.

Microsoft is taking this approach to conform strictly to the letter of its agreement, which states, "Microsoft shall allow end users ... and OEMs ... to enable or remove access to each Microsoft Middleware Product." In other words, Microsoft isn't letting you uninstall these middleware applications; it's simply hiding end-user access to them by deleting icons from the Start Menu and desktop.

The good news is that the Set Program Access and Defaults UI lets you more easily choose which applications you want to use as the defaults in these middleware categories. So you could, for example, more easily roll out Mozilla or Netscape as your Web browser. However, the companies making these products must make a small coding change so their products appear in the list of acceptable applications in Set Program Access and Defaults. Sullivan assured me that Microsoft had contacted all the appropriate companies months ago regarding this "trivial" coding change and that product versions utilizing the change will quietly begin appearing this summer.

And this summer will be a busy time for the SP1 team. XP SP1 Beta 1 is due within a few weeks, with a few release candidate (RC) builds expected between July and September. If all goes well, Microsoft will release XP SP1 by the end of September. I've posted more information about XP SP1 on the SuperSite for Windows at the following URL:

Incidentally, if you're waiting for Win2K SP3, Sullivan told me that its release was "imminent." When I pressed him for a more exact date, he said that the release should be widely available by July.

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