Microsoft on Friday announced it will release a beta of its first service pack for Windows XP late this month that contains a wide assortment of new bug fixes and features, as well as the first changes that bring the operating system into compliance with the U.S. government's consent decree.
Some of the technical fixes in the update are patches developed out of the company's ongoing Trustworthy Computing Initiative and are intended to plug security holes in the product. Microsoft will continue to add other security fixes to the beta version right up until it ships to manufacturing later this summer, company officials said.
"The fixes largely center [on] enhanced security, reliability, and compatibility problems based on the code review that the entire Windows division did and will continue to do," said Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows XP.
The company is also adding new features to the product including support for USB 2.0, which has actually been available for download since February, as well as making the .Net Framework available as an option.
"We are making the Framework available mostly for developers who are now using Visual Studio .Net and who want access to the sockets so they [can] start testing ... the apps they are writing," Sullivan said.
Also new is the support for what Microsoft hopes will be the next generation of mobile systems including the company's Tablet PC, Free Style, and Mirror devices. In the case of Mirror, Microsoft will include a new version of Windows CE .Net. The company will make the software available for these products on a second CD, a company spokesman said.
But what figures to attract most of the industry's attention are the changes Microsoft is making to XP -- as mandated by the courts -- that are designed to give users, software developers and OEMs more flexibility and choice in configuring XP's "middleware products" such as Media Player and Internet Explorer.
"When we signed the consent decree there was a list of eight things we promised to do, from properly documenting APIs between the middleware and the internal Windows systems to licensing protocols between clients and servers so third parties can license those from us and create compatible implementations. This is just one component of our larger compliance effort," Sullivan said.
Microsoft has included a new interface that makes it easier to set up or reconfigure a system. Part of that new look makes it simpler for administrators to remove user access to Internet Explorer, Media Player, Windows Messenger, Outlook Express, and the Java Virtual Machine by removing those icons from the Start menu and icons from their file folders.
"The code [from Microsoft's middleware] is still in there because we have third-party software vendors who have apps that rely on some of the systems services provided by the middleware," Sullivan explained.
On the set/default screen that is part of Add/Remove, IT administrators and OEMs now have four choices. The first is the OEM default, which lists the middleware that vendors have decided to give its users access to. If that vendor wants to hide from users products such as Internet Explorer and Media Player, they can do so. The second choice is to give users access to all of Microsoft's middleware and other bundled products.
Third is what Sullivan calls the "non-Microsoft choice," which presents users with a choice of selecting from all the available and installed components that are not created by Microsoft.
"You will get a drop-down list box that will show products like Netscape, Opera, [and] AOL's stuff but will not show IE or Outlook," Sullivan said.
The fourth choice is Custom, where administrators have "finer grain control" over what can be selected including being able to mix and match Microsoft and non-Microsoft components.
Some analysts who have seen the upcoming beta believe that the changes being driven by the consent decree will pacify the courts, but still may not be enough to open up significant new area of opportunity for competitors.
"I think some of these changes accomplish what was asked of them. But am I convinced that it puts Microsoft's products on an equal footing with those of others? I think they still have an advantage," said Al Gillen, research director for IDC's System Software group, in Framingham, Mass.
Since its availability on Oct. 25 of last year, Microsoft has shipped 32 million copies of Windows XP, or about double what the company reported after the first three months of its availability. Company officials refused, however, to break down sales of the Home and Professional versions of the product.
While sales of Home edition were stronger initially, as expected given the predominance of its consumer-oriented features, more recently there has been a sales uptick in favor of XP Professional, according to Sullivan.
"Some trends we have seen [are] the [higher] ratio of licenses for XP Pro vs. XP Home. It tells us that folks in corporate enterprises are taking advantage of its Remote Desktop and wireless networking. The latter is really driving corporate demand because the experience is so much better compared to Windows 2000," Sullivan said.
What has also helped what he sees as the rapid adoption of Windows XP, particularly though OEMs, is the aggressive marketing waged by Microsoft and its partners that created a lot of "hype" around the product, Sullivan said. Another factor was the inclusion of the OEM pre-installation kit that makes it easier for them to migrate the product to new systems, he said.
While IDC's Gillen believes the company has sold 32 million copies, and that sales of XP Professional are rising relative to those of the Home Edition, he thinks those increased corporate sales have at least as much to do with the downgrade licensing terms of XP Professional and Microsoft's Licensing 6.0 plan as with the operating system's features.
"You can buy XP Pro and have the right to roll out Windows 2000 Pro. But also any corporate user buying a new license, given the terms of Licensing 6.0, is crazy if they don't buy [Licensing 6.0]. If they don't, [they] are already outdated and will have to buy it again. I think this will drive the switchover pretty quick," Gillen said.