Windows XP service pack close at hand

By Matt Berger, IDG News Service |  Operating Systems

The impending update to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP operating system is expected to give end users more control over applications that launch by default on PCs as well as more advanced wireless connectivity.

Microsoft is set to deliver Windows XP Service Pack 1, a set of bug fixes, feature upgrades and technical tweaks, to manufacturers sometime "in the next 10 days," said Charmaine Gravning, product manager with Microsoft's Windows division. Users will eventually be able to download it or purchase it for US$9.95 on a CD, soon after manufacturers get their hands on it, Gravning said.

The company is required to make it available to all users by November 6 in order to comply with its proposed antitrust settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and nine state attorneys general.

Service packs are standard to Microsoft's operating system release cycle. However, the package of updates for Windows XP is especially notable because it will introduce changes to the operating system that bring Microsoft up to speed with the proposed antitrust settlement. For one, users are expected to be able to manually set the default "middleware" applications that open when Windows XP machines boot up.

Microsoft has built into the "start menu" two new tools that help it comply with the proposed settlement deal. One is a function that allows users to add and remove their Microsoft middleware applications. A second addition is a menu designed to allow users to "set program access and defaults" to determine which middleware applications open by default. For example, instead of launching Internet Explorer to view a Web page, a user could set the default to launch the Netscape browser, or launch RealPlayer instead of the Windows Media Player to play back audio or video files.

However, in its early incarnation, the menu will give users limited applications to chose from other than those from Microsoft when they try to set new defaults. To make their applications appear in the new menu, third-party vendors must tune them with a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) Microsoft has disclosed under additional requirements in the proposed consent decree.

So far, no third-party vendors have made use of those APIs, Gravning said. Users who have already set a third-party application as a default by some other means, will have a choice to continue using their current settings as the default, she said.

The noticeable changes will occur on PCs configured by OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), according to Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc.

"This is more targeted at the OEM installation so when they ship a PC they will provide a load of software to choose from," Enderle said. OEMs are expected to work with vendors to outfit their applications to appear in the default setting menu, he said.

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