Windows XP service pack close at hand

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.

Other minor upgrades to the operating system include some changes to the controversial product-activation feature, created to prevent a single copy of Windows from being illegally installed on multiple machines. That feature requires a user to have a unique product key to run the software.

Users who attempt to install a single copy of Windows XP on a second PC will be prevented from doing so, and will now be pointed to a Microsoft Web site that allows them to purchase a second product key over the Internet. Additionally, Microsoft will begin discounting the price of these additional product keys by another US$5, to $15 to $30 less than the full cost of the operating system, Gravning said.

With the service pack, the Redmond, Washington, software maker will also outfit its latest operating system to work with new technology from Microsoft that allows users to control their PC with a remote control, known by its code name "Freestyle."

Windows XP Service Pack 1 will also add support for new computers such as the Tablet PC and the "Mira" desktop computer, officially known as the Windows Powered Smart Display, whose monitor and CPU are connected wirelessly, allowing users to access their hard drive and the Internet from the detached monitor.

These technical changes won't be apparent to current Windows XP users because Mira and Freestyle will only work on specialized PCs in development by some OEMs. Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, will release an entertainment-laden PC with TV and VCR functions based on Freestyle, which is officially known as the Windows XP Media Center Edition.

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