Operating Systems

XP to Get One More Service Pack in April

The clock is ticking for Microsoft to roll out the third and likely final service pack for its seven-year-old Windows XP operating system (OS). Microsoft announced at the end of 2007 that the long-awaited service pack (SP) would be released sometime during the first half of 2008; however, thus far the company has remained mum about the official date and details of the release.

Now that the first service pack for Windows Vista is out the door, and XP users clamor for Microsoft to extend the life cycle of the OS, the time has come for what will likely be XP’s final refresh.

Tech site Neowin.net claimed Tuesday to have obtained what it calls an “internal schedule” for the update. The rollout will go to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on April 21, followed by availability through Microsoft Update, Windows Update and Download Center on April 29, according to Neowin. On June 10, SP3 will be pushed to users via automatic updates.

Microsoft declined to confirm or deny these dates and said only that it expects SP3 to be available in the first half of 2008, provided it meets quality standards.

Ready for a Final Closeup

Three years in the making, SP3 will bring users of the operating system a variety of updates that have been released since Windows XP SP2 rolled out in August 2004.

“At this point, it should be mostly security-related fixes and support and/or drivers for new devices. There are a few old issues left with Windows XP to be fixed in a service pack now,” said Al Gillen, an IDC analyst.

XP SP3 will include all previously released updates for XP, such as security improvements and hotfixes. In addition to select out-of-band releases, SP3 also includes a few new functionalities that “will not significantly change customers’ experience with the operating system,” the software maker said.

More specifically, the update contains some 1,100 hotfixes and patches. It also includes new features such as the Network Access Protection (NAP) Module, Black Hole Router Detection and Kernel Mode Cryptographics Module from Microsoft.

“[SP3 will] include as few new features as possible [because] it makes it harder for [organizations] to deploy an SP if there are lots of changes or new features. It will be mostly fixes, but there’s always a fine line between a fix and support for some new feature like NAP support,” noted Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.

Built into the recently released Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, NAP was included in XP SP3 to provide better protection for network assets by enforcing compliance with system health requirements. NAP users, for instance, will be able to create customized health policies to validate computer health before it is accessed or communicates on a network, according to Microsoft.

Propping Up the Old OS

While it is not unusual to issue a service pack late in the life of an operating system, as Microsoft works to build up the user base for Vista, some may wonder why it would release a service pack for software it plans to no longer sell off the shelf after June 30.

“Because it is still a widely used operating system that is under mainstream support by Microsoft. Halting new sales is not the same thing as the termination of mainstream support,” Gillen pointed out.

Mainstream support for the aging operating system will continue through April 2009. Customers get an extra five years of support from Microsoft under its extended support policy, stretching that period through April 2014, Microsoft explained.

It is also simply a matter of “good housekeeping to have one every once in a while,” Silver told TechNewsWorld.

“SP3 will be able to level-set all the XP users. This will likely be the last SP for XP. NT4 had six, I think, and Win2000 had four,” he added.

Another rationale for this third service pack is that the number of patches has grown too large to download and apply one-by-one, said Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

Don’t Go

As for those users lobbying Microsoft for more time with their beloved OS, their desire will likely go unfulfilled, according to Cherry.

“There’s always a possibility, but I don’t consider it likely,” he noted.

“[It’s] doubtful. The support life is long enough, lasting into 2014. Availability ending June 2008 is not an issue for anyone that can use downgrade rights, and Vista is fine for most consumers,” Silver stated.

The best those users can hope for is an extension of mainstream support.

“Officially, Microsoft has not said as much. But when I look at the huge size of the installed base as of mid-2009, it is likely Microsoft will have little choice but to extend mainstream support. This, by the way, is a good problem for a vendor to have … a really big customer base that really hangs on to its product. Who could be unhappy about that?” Gillen told TechNewsWorld.

Businesses leery of deploying Vista and may see XP SP3 as justification. This rationale may slow the switch to Vista by some businesses, Silver pointed out.

“It will, but it shouldn’t. Skipping Vista means committing to a forklift migration to Windows 7 around 2012, and by then lack of support by ISVs (independent software vendors) and OEMs will make XP a sub-optimal place to be,” he cautioned.

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