Beta-testing for the first service pack update to Microsoft Windows XP will begin within weeks, with a release expected this summer. The free update will include a selection of bug, security, and compatibility fixes--many of which are already available as separate downloads. Release of this service pack could prompt a surge in adoption of Windows XP by some companies that traditionally wait for this milestone before upgrading to a new operating system. Desktop PCs running Windows XP will outnumber those running Windows 98 by late 2003, says Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president with the market-research firm IDC. The ambitious update had a slow start compared with that of its predecessor. “The release of SP1 for Windows XP is likely to cause companies in the pilot-project phase of software adoption to feel comfortable enough to move forward with their adoption plans,” Kusnetzky says. However, there’s little in this service pack for current Windows XP users to get excited about, especially if they’ve religiously (or automatically) downloaded updates through Microsoft’s Windows Update Web site. Aside from the fixes, the service pack update looks forward; it adds support for several upcoming PC designs--such as the Tablet PC--as well as Microsoft’s forthcoming .Net Web services. Ditching applications Long-time Microsoft critics may welcome one feature new to Windows XP, meant to comply with the November 2001 antitrust settlement agreement between Microsoft and the Justice Department. Buried in the Control Panel’s Add/Remove Programs module, the new ‘Set Program Access and Defaults’ settings allow both end-users and system-vendors to specify which programs handle key tasks, including Web browsing, email, instant messaging, media playback, and Java interpreting. In addition to selecting the default application, the new feature can also hide installed programs – including Microsoft programs – from users. For the first time since Windows 95 (which shipped with only a rudimentary media player), PC vendors armed with the updated version of XP will be free to ship systems that use browsers, media players, and other tools, such as Netscape and Opera, from Microsoft competitors instead of Microsoft’s own utilities. IDC’s Kusnetzky says that he doubts many system vendors will go to that extreme, because it might confuse customers accustomed to using Microsoft tools. Still, he finds the settings a plus: “If the features are used to embellish an otherwise standard environment to make it work more easily and be easier to support, the changes will be seen as both beneficial and a competitive differentiator.” Kusnetzky added that it’s important to note that removing access to the Microsoft tools is not the same as removing the tools entirely. The browser and media player will still be there. The icons, menu references, and Registry entries are removed, but not the software they point to. Ready for Tablet PC Although Microsoft says SP1’s official release will be in the second half of 2002, it’s likely to ship sooner than that – so new PC designs supported by the service pack can reach stores in time for holiday shopping. Supported are the Freestyle PC, geared to home entertainment and viewed through the television screen; the Mira PC with its detachable, wireless tablet display; and Tablet PCs, which offer handwriting recognition. According to Microsoft, all three PC designs will be in the market by the autumn, and will require SP1’s enhancements. Other SP1 enhancements include support for USB (Universal Serial Bus) 2.0 devices (already available from Microsoft’s Web site), and key changes to the Windows Product Activation anti-piracy mechanism. Microsoft has added a three-day grace period to WPA that it says will prevent unexpected hardware changes from locking users out of their PCs while on an airplane or away from a phone. Microsoft is developing an update to Windows Media Player, code-named Corona, but it won’t be ready in time for SP1, say company sources. And although Netscape is forging-on with new versions of its browser, Microsoft says it has no imminent plans for an update to Internet Explorer. As with previous service packs, Microsoft will make Windows XP SP1 available as a free download from WindowsUpdate.com. It will probably be about the same size of previous service packs, which range from 25MB to 30MB. Users can also order a CD for a nominal shipping and handling charge. Dutiful XP updaters needn’t worry that installing SP1 will require downloading megabytes of duplicate patches – Windows Update will send only those features that you haven’t already installed.