Microsoft offers more time to test XP Service Pack 2

Microsoft is giving users more time to prepare for Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) by doubling the time a special registry key will prevent PCs from automatically downloading and installing the mammoth update.

Faced with concerns from IT professionals, Microsoft last month made available a tool that allows users to set a Windows registry key that instructs the system to skip downloading and installing SP2 for 120 days, but still download other critical updates. Microsoft has now doubled that period to 240 days, Microsoft told select customers in an e-mail message on Tuesday.

The change was made in response to customer feedback. The blocking mechanism will now prevent Automatic Updates (AU) and Windows Update (WU) from delivering SP2 to Windows computers until April 12, 2005, according to the e-mail.

"Beginning on Tuesday 12 April 2005 AU and WU will deliver SP2 regardless of the presence of the blocking mechanism," Microsoft wrote. April 12 is also the day Microsoft has scheduled a monthly security update, according to the note.

The extension is Microsoft's latest move to help users deal with SP2. The software maker earlier postponed automatic distribution of the service pack to PCs running Windows XP Professional Edition so users had more time to install the blocking mechanism. Microsoft has also published many documents detailing the changes SP2 makes to Windows XP and potential application compatibility problems.

Thomas Smith, manager of desktop engineering at a large Houston-based company that he asked not to be named, is happy about the extension. "Microsoft is finally listening to its customers. This is a big thing they have done to help us out," he said. Smith manages about 5,000 Windows XP desktops. The registry key has been installed on more than half of those, he said.

"This extension is going to allow us to do more extensive testing, along with giving us time to change our applications to work with SP2, if needed," Smith said.

SP2 is more than the usual roll-up of bug fixes and updates; it makes significant changes to Windows in the name of increased security. As a result, SP2 can render existing applications inoperable. Because of those changes, many businesses want to hold off on installing the update and are taking time for testing. Automatic Updates initially did not give users that flexibility.

Although Microsoft advises consumers to enable the Automatic Updates feature in Windows, the company recommends businesses use patch management tools such as its Systems Management Server (SMS) and Software Update Services (SUS) or third-party products.

The initial schedule called for Microsoft to begin pushing out the already delayed SP2 via Automatic Updates to all editions of Windows XP on Monday, Aug. 16. Systems running Windows XP Home Edition finally started downloading SP2 on Wednesday, Aug. 18 and distribution to Windows XP Professional Edition started on Wednesday, Aug. 25. As implied by the edition names, Windows XP Home Edition is meant for home users, while the Professional Edition is aimed at businesses and more demanding users.

Microsoft has labeled SP2 a "critical" update and urges all Windows XP users to install it as soon as possible. The software maker expects about 100 million PCs to be updated by October via Automatic Updates alone.

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Joris Evers

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