Hefty Windows update may wreak IT havoc

Windows XP SP2 (Service Pack 2), due as early as next month, will ring in major software changes comparable to those of a new OS release. The service pack could break current applications, disrupt networking setups, and prompt nontechnical users to make PC configuration decisions beyond their grasp. Meanwhile, Microsoft, PC makers, and Windows users alike are bracing for likely headaches and an increased need for support.

Although Microsoft has deemed Windows XP SP2 a service pack, the update seems more akin to a full OS upgrade. SP2 will be downloaded automatically into many PCs through Microsoft's Windows Update service. The service pack will contain bug fixes and updates, but it will also offer new features and make significant changes to Windows software in four main areas: network protection, memory protection, e-mail security, and browsing security.

Microsoft will have to treat SP2 as if it were a new OS release, said Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft. "It is that level of change," he said.

The potential for upheaval has made some users uncomfortable.

"Businesses like us don't run the latest version of an operating system," said Victor Go, vice president of technology at Landmark Theatres. "It is kind of scary that in order to get the required updates, we also get all these enhancements, which is usually a separate project."

Microsoft has made a trade-off with SP2, focusing on security at the expense of compatibility. As a result, SP2 can render existing applications inoperable. Microsoft has urged testing.

The automatic update is especially worrying to Thomas Smith, manager of desktop engineering at a large Houston-based company. During testing, he found that 5,000 Windows XP desktops would no longer connect to the home office with the update installed.

"It will break our enterprise," Smith said.

SP2 will make changes to Windows that all users will notice. For example, when the Windows Security Center issues security alerts, a security wizard will ask users to make decisions about settings.

Microsoft recognizes there will be an increased need for support. "(This) is a security-focused service pack that is going to have some significant impact on people's systems," said Matt Pilla, senior product manager at Microsoft.

Microsoft is still working out the details for its SP2 support plan, but it will offer worldwide telephone support for the service pack free of charge, Pilla said.

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Joris Evers

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