Since Microsoft shipped two service packs for XP (one of them a major OS upgrade) within the product's first few years on the market, it's somewhat surprising that, three years after SP2, we've yet to see an SP3 release. Microsoft is working on XP SP3 but is being quite cagey about when it will be available. Here's what you need to know about XP SP3.
Why the Delay?
Despite Microsoft's enormous size (more than 77,000 employees and roughly $50 billion in annual revenues), in some cases the company's organizational structure actually constrains which products are actively developed. Although a large team of developers, product managers, and program managers is involved in the ramp-up to any major OS release, Microsoft then pushes the product to its support organization for follow-up development in the form of hotfixes, service packs, and so on. Other teams work on out-of-band updates that are typically released via the Web, and eventually a new or existing team is constituted to work on the next major release and the entire process begins anew.
In the case of XP, however, Microsoft was forced to temporarily halt development on Windows Vista in order to complete SP2 because it was, in fact, a major OS upgrade and was developed outside of the company's support structure—a first for any service pack. After SP2 completion, Microsoft dedicated every available employee to Vista, which by that time was years behind schedule. In early 2007 Microsoft finally reassigned employees to the development of XP SP3.
What SP3 Includes
Whereas XP SP2 was an enormous release with dramatically improved security features, Microsoft says that SP3 will be a more typical service pack with no major new features. So SP3 will include a roll-up of all the hotfixes, security fixes, and other updates that have been released since SP2, as well as the contents of SP1 and SP2, as is typically the case.
Microsoft plans to release XP SP3 in the first half of 2008. Given the relative security, stability, and reliability of SP2 and the subsequent release of Vista, XP SP3 might seem like a pointless update, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many businesses will roll out new XP-based PCs in the coming years, and as anyone who's had to update an XP SP2 system can tell you, the 100-plus updates that Microsoft has shipped since SP2 can be a nightmare to deploy. If you're already running XP and have been regularly updating those systems, the release of SP3 will be a minor event. But if you've planned XP deployments for the future, look very carefully at this release and consider it the baseline for your next generation of PCs. Or, you could decide to go the Vista route, which will be supported with updates much longer than XP will. Incidentally, SP3 will also be available via Windows Update.