PC makers take slow road to XP update

The release of a first service pack is typically a watershed event for a new version of Windows, but PC makers are taking their own sweet time to add this update to new machines.

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Microsoft on Monday issued the first service pack for Windows XP, but the update may not appear on some new PCs until next year.

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The release of a first service pack is typically a watershed event for a new version of Windows, signaling that the initial shakedown is over and that the operating system is ready for prime time. Many businesses waited to upgrade to Windows 2000, for example, until Microsoft released the first update in July 2000, about five months after the operating system launched.

However, PC makers plan to be slow to add the Windows XP Service Pack 1 to new systems. PC makers say they are in no hurry to support the service pack--available as a free download from Microsoft's Web site--because the OS was launched with few major bugs, an automatic update feature keeps users current with new fixes, and many businesses still favor Windows 2000 over XP.

Only a handful of PC makers expect to begin shipping PCs with the update by early October. Some PC makers, such as Sony, plan to release new models without the update and wait until possibly early next year to offer XP with the service pack.

PC makers' lack of enthusiasm for the update contrasts sharply with earlier service packs. Many computer manufacturers started shipping Windows 2000 with Service Pack 1 on new PCs less than a month after Microsoft released the update.

"There just isn't a lot to get excited about here," said ARS analyst Toni Duboise, who noted that other than security fixes, the service pack offers few must-have updates for Windows XP.

Fewer problems
A number of factors apparently affected PC makers' slow approach to the service pack. Many manufacturers have reported a dramatic decline in technical support calls with Windows XP compared with older versions of the operating system.

In the weeks following Windows XP's release, for example, Gateway credited a 10 percent increase in resolving technical support issues on the first call to the new operating system. This higher customer satisfaction has led some manufacturers to take a "if it's not broken, don't fix it" approach to Service Pack 1, said analysts.

Some Microsoft customers agreed that XP has fewer problems than previous Windows versions.

"I've been a Mac user for about 10 years, and I think XP is a big improvement over what Microsoft has done in the past," said Anders Martinson, a software engineer from Mountain View, Calif., who started using Windows XP near the end of 2001. "By far, the feature of XP that pleases me the most is the plug-and-play recognition of peripherals. I was especially pleased when my system instantly recognized my digital camera."

At the same time, Windows 2000, the previous-generation OS from Microsoft, still reigns supreme among business customers, say PC makers. Market researcher Gartner estimates that computers with Windows 2000 will account for 41 percent of new PCs sold to businesses this year, compared with about 16 percent with Windows XP. In August, Microsoft issued Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000.

Windows XP's automatic update feature is another factor dampening the rush of computer manufacturers to offer the service pack. People already have the option of automatically downloading bug fixes and updates as soon as they are available. This means that many more existing Windows XP users have the majority of updates they already need. PC makers also already offer the most important new feature, support for USB 2.0 devices, on new PCs.

Still, having the service pack installed on a new PC would save customers the trouble of downloading those updates manually, since they otherwise would not be available on the system. Microsoft has issued about 35 separate downloads through the Windows Update feature since Oct. 25.

Middleware changes
In some respects, PC makers' attitude toward the update is surprising, considering that Service Pack 1 contains a major change mandated by Microsoft's pending settlement with the Justice Department and nine states.

As required by the agreement, Microsoft must hide access to five so-called middleware programs: Internet Explorer, Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player, Outlook Express and Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine. A new control called "Set Program Access and Defaults" lets PC makers or consumers choose which middleware programs--Microsoft's or third-parties'--are the default.

Do-it-yourself Windows redesign

Service Pack 1 for Windows XP will let consumers and PC makers override five of Microsoft's default middleware products: Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger and Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine.

A new icon will appear in the Program Menu, under "Windows Update," for setting program access and defaults. (On new PCs, the icon will also be displayed on the Start Menu.) The "Set Programs Access and Defaults" control also will appear in the Windows Control Panel.

The control offers four options for changing the Windows desktop and Start Menu:

• Computer Manufacturer Configuration--PC makers have the choice of installing Microsoft or third-party middleware, or hiding access to Microsoft middleware. Designed to restore the middleware configuration to the default setting chosen by the PC maker.

• Microsoft Windows--Allows access to all of Microsoft's middleware and makes each piece of software the default option; none is hidden.

• Non-Microsoft--Allows users to choose middleware from competitors as their default choices. When no third-party middleware is installed, Microsoft software would appear in the list.

• Custom--Lists all middleware installed in the five different categories. Users can check a default or they can hide or show every single one.

So far, MusicMatch is the only major middleware developer supporting the new control. AOL Time Warner and RealNetworks, for example, only plan to support the middleware control in forthcoming product releases. So, for example, the new control will not recognize AOL 7.0 installed on a PC that has Windows XP with Service Pack 1. Even in the case of MusicMatch, people must upgrade to version 7.20.0173 for the control to see the media player on the system.

"We might have taken Service Pack 1 more seriously if more software were available for the 'Set Program Access and Default'" control, said one PC maker, which asked not be identified.

With a release date of Oct. 7, Gateway is expected to be one of the first PC makers to offer Windows XP with Service Pack 1 on new computers. But the company ships an older version of MusicMatch, which is not recognized by the new middleware control.

One of the new control's options will let consumers restore the middleware configuration back to the original defaults set by the PC maker. But it is unclear how useful that feature will be if none of the middleware installed on the computer works with the control.

Dell Computer could not give an estimated date for when new PCs will ship with the service pack. But the company does plan to post technical support documents about the update this week, said a Dell representative. "We will support Service Pack 1 on any of our PCs sold with Windows XP," the representative said.

Dell plans to make no changes to the middleware configuration installed on its consumer PCs compared with pre-Service Pack 1. While the company ships MusicMatch as the preferred media player on its consumer systems, Dell plans to let PC owners decide which program will be the default one. As one of its original features, Windows XP pops up a menu of application choices when a person inserts a CD pr DVD, for instance.

"We want our customers to make the decision which program is the right one for them," said the Dell representative.

In no hurry
Hewlett-Packard plans to start shipping new commercial PCs with the service pack on Nov. 14. "That may sound like a long (time). But you've got to remember Monday's announcement is an English-only SP1," said an HP representative. "We support 23 different languages."

The company expects to offer the update on Pavilion and Presario consumer PCs much earlier, possibly in October.

Sony, by contrast, doesn't plan to offer the update on new PCs until 2003.

"We're announcing our fall line imminently, and (Service Pack 1) will not be preloaded on the fall line," a Sony representative said. "It will be preloaded on all of our spring models, and those are models that ship at the end of December or January."

Sony will offer the service pack via the Web for existing customers who wish to update their Windows XP PCs.

Some PC makers see great promise in the update for new products coming for the holidays. Included in Service Pack 1 is support for Windows Media Center PCs and the Tablet PC. Hewlett-Packard is preparing its Media Center PC, which serves up a customized version of Windows XP accessed via remote control, for holiday release. Acer, HP and Toshiba are readying their versions of Tablet PC for the product's Nov. 7 launch.

Mira devices, which are Web-surfing flat-panel screens powered by Windows CE for Smart Displays, also require updates that are part of the service pack.

Massive update
Existing Windows XP users can get the update right away from Microsoft's Web site. The size of the file is about 133MB. But consumers also have the option of applying the service pack using Windows update, which would reduce the size of the download to 32MB.

"We encourage customers to apply Service Pack 1 to their Windows XP PCs because of the security, reliability and compatibility enhancements it offers," said Jim Cullinan, Windows XP lead product manager.

Like other service packs, the Windows XP update packs in mostly bug fixes and security updates. Microsoft's Web site for Windows XP support lists 271 articles about the various fixes issued since the October launch of Windows XP.

Still, service packs sometimes introduce new problems. Microsoft already has chronicled about 30 possible glitches associated with the update. For example, Roxio's DirectCD 5.1 software may choke copying large files. Updating to version or later solves the problem.

Microsoft has also included a few surprises in the update, the most significant of which is aimed at curbing Windows XP piracy.

Windows XP, like Office XP, Project 2002 and Visio 2002, features a product activation technology that essentially locks the software to a PC's hardware configuration. In most cases the activation code is unique. But some codes issued through Microsoft's volume licensing program can be used repeatedly. Microsoft estimates that two leaked codes account for more than 90 percent of the Windows XP software piracy.

Microsoft has rigged Service Pack 1 so that it will not update Windows XP installations that use either of the two stolen codes. CNET News.com observed the feature on a Windows XP notebook that had been activated with one of two codes. The update would not install, warning of problems with the activation code and recommending the person either contact the PC manufacturer or Microsoft's piracy hotline.