Say hello to Vista SP1

With the coming limited release of a beta, details emerge

After lots of hemming and hawing, obfuscation and obdurate executive attitudes, Microsoft came clean today, sort of, about Vista's first service pack. The company confirmed a three-month launch window and said it would shortly move Service Pack 1 into a broader beta test.

There are unanswered questions -- when aren't there? -- but we know more today than we did yesterday about SP1, the first major update to Vista, and a package that both Microsoft and its corporate customers have put much faith in -- so much so that there's a lot riding on the success of the upgrade.

With that in mind, we took our first shot at SP1. Certainly, there will be more.

In the meantime, all hail SP1.

So what's the lowdown? When will Windows Vista SP1 roll out in beta, and when in final form?

Microsoft is saying only "a few weeks" and "September," which are, after all, one and the same, for the beta. As for the final release, the software maker finally acknowledged rumors circulating since the Google deal in June that the service pack won't wrap up until the first quarter of next year. Microsoft has kept its lips tight and has officially offered up only that it expected to put a beta into play "sometime this year." Earlier talk had centered on the last quarter of 2007 as the presumed ship time for SP1, but that's clearly not in the cards. The deck used to brief reporters, in fact, included a slide with the line "Release date will depend on confirmation from beta testers," which is essentially what the company said numerous times in 2006 as it worked toward Vista's delayed launch. In other words: Microsoft is leaving itself wiggle room.

Who will get a crack at SP1 beta?

You might want to sit down. Microsoft has said that it will seed the September build to between just 10,000 and 15,000 partners and customers. Don't act so surprised. We told you Microsoft almost always does it this way. The beta track regularly runs from private-private to private-public to public-public, with few deviations and no detours. How it plans on doing that is a mystery. Invite only? Concert seating, mad rush to the URL? Lottery?

Microsoft has confused us with its nomenclature. On the Vista team's blog, program manager Nick White today said, "A later prerelease of SP1 will be available to a larger group of testers via MSDN and TechNet subscribers." Later prerelease? Does that mean the beta, or a postbeta, such as the inevitable release candidate? We're awaiting clarification.

OK, I never win anything, so I'm clearly out of luck here. ... Will there be a bigger beta, a public-public?

Yeah sure, why not? Actually, Microsoft said it would distribute the beta, or maybe a release candidate, to a larger group between September and the final release. Details? Nothing more than White's confusing comment. You decipher; they'll decide.

Why all the fuss about a service pack, anyway?

We have a couple of theories -- explanations, actually -- as to why SPs are now very important to the Windows food chain. First, the obvious. The hoary advice to wait for the service pack may be apocryphal, but if it is myth, it has become reality. Microsoft needs to stake out SP1 to convince major customers that it's time to deploy its not-quite-so-new operating system. Sure, they've already paid, or most of them have, for Vista with licensing agreements such as Software Assurance. But the sooner they move to Vista, the sooner they will, presumably, move on to what comes after Vista. Second, and this is often overlooked, is that the last Windows client service pack -- 2004's XP SP2 -- set the bar very high -- so high that expectations of what a service pack is have grown all out of proportion to what Microsoft will deliver. XP SP2 wasn't just a service pack. As defined until then, an SP was little more than a collection of bug fixes and security patches, tested more thoroughly in the aggregate, but still a collection. XP SP2 changed that by making sweeping changes, most of them in the security arena, to the operating system. Remember, SP2 was the first service pack to be delivered by Windows Update -- not only delivered, but force-fed to users. Because of XP SP2, there's much more made of Vista SP1 than if that 2004 update hadn't happened.

From Microsoft's description of Vista SP1, users expecting another XP SP2 will be disappointed. This is much more in the historical tradition of service packs. For that reason, expect to hear some SP1 backlash or pooh-poohing by users, analysts, bloggers and yes, maybe even a reporter or two.

How big is SP1?

At the moment, according to Microsoft, it's around 50MB in the form that will be squeezed through Windows Update and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). The actual size of the update is likely in the 684MB range of the build leaked last week to BitTorrent. Microsoft managed to reduce the download by both compression and delivering only the file each specific PC needs. In comparison, Windows XP SP2 weighed in at 266MB.

The stand-alone service pack designed for businesses that want a way to update multiple machines is considerably larger: 1GB or so on the DVD. This is what enterprises using System Center Configuration Manager 2007 will deploy.

More to the point of size -- except to those who still live and die by dial-up, to whom 50GB might as well be 50TB -- is that installing SP1 requires what Microsoft characterizes as "a large amount" of free space on the drive. How large? Try 7GB for 32-bit, around 12GB for 64-bit.

What's Microsoft removing from Vista with SP1?

This may be a first, but the service pack is actually subtracting from Vista, not just adding. According to the white paper Microsoft released today, "The service pack will uninstall the Group Policy Management Console." GPMC, which debuted with Windows Server 2003, is a one-stop console for setting operating system policies that, say, ban everyone in the office from downloading potentially poisonous .exe files. Instead, the older GPEdit.msc application will have to suffice, at least for a while. "In the SP1 time frame," it said, "administrators can download an out-of-band release that will give them the ability to add comments to group policy objects (GPO) or individual settings and search for specific settings." The "out-of-band release" in that sentence refers to an enhanced version of GPMC, which will presumably be issued before, at the same time, or after SP1.

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