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XP update to go beyond mere fixes

Along with squashing bugs, as service packs normally do, Microsoft's first major update to Windows XP will add support for Tablet PCs and a fancier graphical interface.

Microsoft will deliver the first major update to Windows XP as early as the third quarter, a company representative said Thursday.

The Gatekeeper: Windows XP In its update, Microsoft plans to present some significant technology enhancements, along with the bug fixes that it typically includes in updates or service packs to operating systems such as Windows NT and 2000. A service pack is a cumulative collection of fixes and updates for a desktop operating system that otherwise would be available as separate downloads.

Windows XP Service Pack 1 will also deliver support for technologies that could allow PC makers to devise computers that go beyond more staid desktop and notebook designs. Service Pack 1 will introduce support for Mira "smart" display devices, the Tablet PC and the multimedia-oriented Freestyle graphical interface.

"This update will be similar to putting a new coat of wax on your brand-new car," said Jim Cullinan, Windows XP lead product manager. "It will provide a roll-up of critical updates and enabling technologies for devices like Mira, as well as new types of PCs like the Tablet PC and Freestyle PCs."

Depending on availability of the beta, or testing, versions of the service pack, PC manufacturers could debut new Windows XP products for the holidays. Hewlett-Packard, for example, hopes to deliver a hybrid PC-home entertainment center built around Freestyle, an interface wrapping together Windows XP's digital multimedia features, such as music, videos and television. Among other changes, consumers would be able to navigate the interface using a remote control rather than a keyboard.

Though Microsoft plans to introduce new technologies, the company won't do so in a way that upsets the stability that businesses look for in an operating system, Cullinan said. Microsoft ships a consumer and business version of Windows, but the major features are largely identical.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver said most companies considering a switch to Windows XP need not wait for the first service pack, as they did with Windows 2000.

"We've been telling our clients they could deploy XP without a service pack because XP really is a service pack--for Windows 2000," he said. "The first service pack for XP won't help organizations as much as the first one for Windows 2000 did from a psychological point of view."

Gartner still predicts that businesses this year will pick Windows 2000 over XP by a wide margin, in part because of upgrade strategies already under way and because of some lacking software support.

"The problem enterprises have been having with XP is not the lack of a service pack but support from ISVs (independent software developers)," said Silver. "That's not really affected all that much by service packs."

Cullinan added that "the final component will be changes required by the consent decree with the DOJ and nine states."

On Wednesday, Microsoft and the Justice Department filed a revised version of their settlement agreement. If approved by a federal judge, the settlement would become a consent decree that would place some restrictions on Microsoft's business practices. In the revised document, Microsoft also agreed not to restrict Windows access for third-party middleware technologies, such as Web browsing, instant messaging and media playback.

Next week, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly will hold a hearing to determine whether the settlement is in the public interest.

Microsoft's delivery of the first Windows XP service pack won't come as quickly as did its predecessors. The software titan, for example, released Windows 2000 in February 2000 and Service Pack 1 in July of that year. Microsoft posted Windows 2000 Service Pack 2 in May; a third service pack for the operating system is in testing now.

By contrast, PC makers started shipping Windows XP in September, and the product went on sale at retail stores in October, meaning the first service pack's release could be a whole year in the making.

Silver said the delay in delivering Window XP Service Pack 1 is not surprising because of the deal with the Justice Department. "They have to open up these APIs (application programming interfaces) for the DOJ settlement by the time Service Pack 1 shipped or a year after the consent decree is signed, whichever comes first," he said. "So this delay was totally expected."