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Windows XP Service Pack 1 Preview

In a meeting with Windows XP Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan the week of May 20, 2002, I got the low-down on Windows XP Service Pack (SP1), an important upgrade to Microsoft's fastest selling operating system of all time. Here's what I found out, augmented by information that's come to light since then, including licensing changes supplied by Microsoft's Allen Nieman, and data about the RTM release of SP1, which will become publicly available on September 9, 2002.

Prelude to the Service Pack: Windows XP Momentum
Sullivan was excited about XP's market momentum, despite the overall downturn in the PC world. "We sold 17 million copies of Windows XP in its first three months of availability, and then 32 million by the sixth month mark," he noted. "And those sales represent [PC maker] bundling and retail sales only, not enterprise sales or volume licensing." This makes XP the fastest selling Windows version ever, and Sullivan told me that PC makers had switched their product lines over to XP faster than they had with any previous Windows version. "People want XP," he said, "and the computer companies responded."

In addition to the various experiences in Windows XP--digital media, home networking, and communications--Sullivan said that the Windows XP ecosystem, or infrastructure, is stronger than any previous Windows version. At launch, Microsoft had three times as much support for devices as did Windows 98, for example, and product support tripled within 6 months, so that XP now supports almost 13,000 unique devices.

What's in Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1)
Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) consists of three main areas:

Enhanced security, reliability and Compatibility - Post-RTM Security fixes and hot-fixes, compatibility updates, and a new Messenger version.

New capabilities - USB 2.0 support, optional .NET Framework, enabling technologies for new devices such as Tablet PCs, "Freestyle" PCs, and "Mira" display hardware.

Consent decree compliance - New UI components, including Configure Program Defaults.

Let's take a closer look at each of these areas.

Enhanced Security, Reliability and Compatibility
XP1 SP1 will include a roll-up of all of the security patches that have been released for Windows XP since that product RTM'd last year, Sullivan said. This includes critical updates that were created during the extensive Trustworthy Computing code review that occurred in February/March 2002. "The Windows Division underwent a rigorous code review," he told me, "We've changed our entire software development process because of the Trustworthy Computing initiative."

XP SP1 will also include Windows Messenger 4.7, a new version that includes updated security features and the Add/Remove capabilities required by the consent decree compliance. Windows Messenger 4.7 will become available as a free download as well, shortly before SP1 ships this fall.

New Capabilities
Windows XP SP1 will enabled PC makers to ship two new kinds of PCs, Tablet PCs, and "Freestyle" PCs (See my Freestyle preview for more information). Previous to my meeting with Sullivan, I understood that Tablet PCs would obviously be separate machines, but this was the first time I had heard that PC makers would ship Freestyle-specific PCs. The reason, Sullivan said, was that Freestyle requires specific hardware devices, including a remote control and associated interface, and a specific type of TV capture card. So the Freestyle software won't be available for free. You can only get it as part of a Freestyle PC.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it's very bad news. I explained to Sullivan that this decision was a mistake, but he said I needed to take that up with the eHome people who are developing Freestyle. I will do so.

Support for Mira, obviously, will come in the box with Mira display devices (See my Mira preview for more information).

In any event, Mira, Freestyle, and the Tablet PC will all require XP SP1. But SP1 won't natively include support for any of this technology, because that would needlessly bloat the download, Sullivan said. Instead, the Mira, Freestyle, and Tablet PC bits will be delivered by PC makers and hardware makers only. "They're all OEM deliverables," Sullivan noted.

Also, by separating out the code for Mira, Freestyle, and the Tablet PC, corporate customers won't be affected by these new scenarios.

Interestingly, support for the .NET Framework in XP SP1 will be optional. This is so that enterprises can opt out of this technology during software roll-outs, Sullivan told me. However, the .NET Framework will be an integrated part of the next Windows version. "In the future, all Windows applications will require the .NET Framework," Sullivan said.

Compliance Changes
Perhaps the most interesting part of our meeting revolved around the changes that Microsoft will make to XP in order to meet the requirements of its proposed settlement with the federal government, a consent decree in which the company agrees, among many other things, to the following:

Starting at the earlier of the release of Service Pack 1 for Windows XP or 12 months after the submission of this Final Judgment to the Court, Microsoft shall allow end users (via a mechanism readily accessible from the desktop or Start menu such as an Add/Remove icon) and OEMs (via standard preinstallation kits) to enable or remove access to each Microsoft Middleware Product or Non-Microsoft Middleware Product by displaying or removing icons, shortcuts, or menu entries on the desktop or Start menu, or anywhere else in a Windows Operating System Product where a list of icons, shortcuts, or menu entries for applications are generally displayed. [Also, Microsoft shall] allow end users (via a mechanism readily available from the desktop or Start menu), OEMs (via standard OEM preinstallation kits), and Non-Microsoft Middleware Products (via a mechanism which may, at Microsoft?s option, require confirmation from the end user) to designate a Non-Microsoft Middleware Product to be invoked in place of that Microsoft Middleware Product. 

Note the language here: "enable or remove access to each Microsoft Middleware Product." That is, Microsoft doesn't have to remove any middleware products (which include Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine, and Windows Messenger), it just has to hide them from the end user. And hiding them, Sullivan told me, means simply that any Start menu, desktop, or taskbar icons to those applications will be removed, while the applications themselves stay right there on the system where they always were.

This started a somewhat heated discussion.

Sullivan told me that Microsoft was committed--absolutely committed--to honoring the spirit of this consent decree, something the company has had problems with in the past (see my WinInfo article, Microsoft Remedy Trial: Judge Warns Microsoft It Must Comply, for details). And sure enough, the agreement pretty much says that Microsoft simply has to hide access to the offending middleware. But I'm not so sure that Microsoft is honoring the spirit of the agreement at all. In fact, Microsoft is simply meeting the letter of the agreement, as they've often done with similar agreements in the past. If the company was interested in really complying with this agreement--which, after all, is partially designed to ensure that the applications Microsoft commingles with Windows don't disadvantage the competition), other related bundled applications, such as Windows Movie Maker (WMM) and MSN Explorer would be included in this list as well. And they would be completely removable. There's no reason for most corporate users to install WMM, for example.

Well, that's one opinion. This topic seems to polarize people somewhat.

In any event, the compliance changes are complicated. First, Microsoft is adding a new entry to the Start Menu and Add or Remove Programs applet called Set Program Access and Defaults, which provides end-user access to the so-called middleware settings. This UI lets users "remove" (actually, hide) access to Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger, or Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine. The following four configurations are presented:

Computer manufacturer - If you choose this configuration, your machine will be returned to the middleware configuration that was chosen by your PC maker. So, if you purchase a Dell PC in this purely hypothetical scenario, and Dell has signed deals with RealNetworks and America Online, choosing this configuration would hide Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer, and assign RealNetworks RealONE as the default media player, and AOL as the default Web browser.

Microsoft Windows - This configuration uses Microsoft's applications, obviously, so that other middleware would be hidden and Microsoft's products would be the defaults.

Non-Microsoft - In this almost humorous configuration choice, all of Microsoft's middleware products are hidden.

Custom - Here, you can customize how each middleware application behaves, so that you can individually hide application shortcuts or make certain applications the default.

If it's not obvious, this compliance piece will also require Microsoft's competitors to add code to their products so that they can identify themselves to Windows XP and be included in the configurations. Microsoft has already alerted all of the middleware competitors what they must do in order to be included, and Sullivan told me that all of them will ship new versions that quietly add this functionality before the fall. "It's a very small coding change," he told me.

Getting back to the hiding controversy, Sullivan said that the goal was to ensure that customers had the best possible experience. But why, I wondered, couldn't Microsoft simply make these applications truly removable? Sullivan told me that hundreds of applications rely on services exposed by these middleware applications and that removing them would create confusion and require application developers to write additional code that could initiate the needed middleware installations. "Windows is a rich environment," he said, "and users just expect certain capabilities." I agree with that, actually, but also wonder about the non-settling states' pending case against the company. What if, I asked, the states win, and Microsoft is forced to let users remove these applications? Sullivan admitted, at that point, that the company would have to look at each application and decide where to draw the line between front-end application and back-end service. I recommend that they get going on that right now.

Changes to Product Activation

Microsoft's controversial Windows Product Activation (WPA) technology is also seeing three minor modifications in XP SP1, neither of which will affect any legitimate users. First, the company discovered that the majority of pirated XP copies out there are tied to single volume license product key. So Microsoft has alerted the company about the problem, changed their key, and disabled it for use after SP1. So anyone using this pirated key will be unable to upgrade to SP1 or any future updates via Windows Update, Sullivan said. In August, Microsoft alerted me that this single pirated key wouldn't be the only one blocked by Windows XP SP1. "Software piracy continues to be a worldwide problem and Microsoft is committed to a long-term strategy of protecting intellectual property through innovative technologies," the company wrote. "The introduction of technical measures to thwart piracy has kicked-off a cat-and-mouse game between software publishers and those who pirate software. Microsoft will introduce additional technological measures in Service Pack 1 for Windows XP aimed at ensuring legally licensed customers receive the full benefits of owning their valid license. These changes include denying access to the Windows XP SP1 updates for PCs with known pirated installations, product key validation during activation, and the repair of cracks to activation."

Also, Microsoft is adding a three-day grace period for people that need to reactivate after making significant hardware changes; in the past, there was no grace period and the user had to immediately activation via phone in order to use XP. This will give users some breathing room if disaster strikes and you have to install XP on a new system.

Finally, volume license customers will be able to encrypt their volume license product key in unattended installations, an important change for those that weren't too excited about typing their product key into an unprotected text file.

"The impact on valid licenses is zero," Sullivan said. Instead, what Microsoft wants to do is make it more difficult for pirates to continue using and updating Windows XP. For more information about the Product Activation updates in XP SP1, please refer to the Microsoft Web site.

Timing and Delivery

XP SP1 entered beta in late June 2002, and hit the release candidate (RC) phase later that summer. The RTM (Release To Manufacturing) date was reached Friday, August 30. Windows XP SP1 will be available for free download or via CD for the cost of shipping and handling (about $10) starting September 9, 2002. Additionally, the Windows XP retail packaging will be updated in mid-October 2002 to include SP1 labeling. That is, all retail copies of XP will include the SP1 code, slipstreamed into the original version of XP. Sullivan told me that Microsoft hadn't decided yet how the SP1 version would be differentiated from the original version, other than that the included CD-ROM would mention SP1 in some way. The retail box may include a sticker, but the company is concerned that customers might think they need to purchase another Windows version if a "new version" sticker is used.

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