It may have been a long time coming, but Microsoft’s newest Service Pack 2 for Windows XP — soon to be released for beta testing — represents several significant changes to the software.
Many of the updates and new features, which analysts have said could amount to an entirely different operating system altogether, center on security: default firewall enabling; a new application programming interface to block malicious attachments; default shutoff of the Remote Procedure Call service to prevent attacks such as the Blaster worm; and processor-based restrictions on execution of malicious code. The latest service pack also shows that the company has moved to automatic updates to ensure its Windows XP patches are applied.
Another feature of the Windows XP Service Pack 2 — aimed at both improved user experience and defense against the trend of spoofing Web sites that infect, steal data or harm users in other ways — is a default pop-up blocker.
Microsoft security unit vice president Mike Nash said in a webcast that the service pack — now being tested by 2,000 users — soon will be available for wider testing and should be released to the public in 2004. “That ship date is really going to be a factor of [user] input,” he said.
Meta Group vice president Steve Kleynhans described two flavors of service packs: a rollup of fixes or an update that would change the product. He told TechNewsWorld that the Windows XP Service Pack 2 is more of a change of product.
“One interesting thing is that Microsoft said they weren’t going to use service packs to change their products,” he said. “They’re in a situation, though — primarily because of security — where just patching isn’t taking them far enough.”
Kleynhans, who said it has been a long time since the last service pack for XP was released, indicated corporate clients are positive about the significant update and are anxious to test it and see its impact on their environments.
Kleynhans said the change that likely will have the biggest impact is the default built-in firewall, which will protect all network connections.
While the XP firewall has had issues in the past — particularly in light of the fact that its activation has adversely affected or crippled other applications — Kleynhans said users are not supposed to have those issues with the new firewall, dubbed Microsoft Firewall by the Redmond, Washington-based software giant.
“We can turn Windows Firewall on by default in the Windows XP Service Pack 2 because we’re not worried about breaking other applications,” said Nash, who also referred to improved control of the firewall.
Update and Inoculate
Another key component of the XP Service Pack 2 is an automatic-update feature that will allow users to get the latest patches and other fixes without having to download and apply them on their own.
Kleynhans said that despite providing patches as quickly as possible, Microsoft systems have remained a soft target because of the vast numbers of users who do not apply available patches.
“This is intended to improve time to installation, particularly in environments that are lightly managed — primarily consumers and small business,” Kleynhans said. “It’s kind of like vaccinating the entire population to stop the spread of an epidemic.”
Kleynhans said the SP2’s pop-up blocking — a feature that will prevent the automatic launch of pop-up advertising — was “just a response to the kinds of things people complain about.”
However, Nash said Microsoft sees the issue as a big one and added that the trend of spoofing Web sites to dupe users also might be limited by the pop-up blocking technology.
Both the new Windows Firewall and the pop-up blocker in SP2 have exception lists that will let users allow certain sites to use pop-up scripts, Nash said.
“We really want to focus on making this as user friendly as possible,” he noted.