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Service pack or else?

Microsoft Corporation made good on its settlement with the U.S. Justice Department last week when they introduced Service Pack 1, a selection of patches and upgrades for their 10-month old Windows XP platform.

Microsoft Corporation made good on its settlement with the U.S. Justice Department last week when they introduced Service Pack 1, a selection of patches and upgrades for their 10-month old Windows XP platform.

It fixes a number of technical bugs, including the glaring omission of support for the popular Java programming language.

It also makes it possible for computer manufacturers and users to hide Microsoft’s proprietary e-mail, Web browser and media players, giving companies and individuals more freedom to use software by Microsoft rivals.

It also takes care of a few security flaws. Security experts are advising users to download the service pack as soon as possible to repair what PC World calls "a little known but critical vulnerability" that allows files on XP computers to be deleted by clicking a malicious URL.

The service pack, called SP1, could also force thousands of PC users that have acquired bogus copies of the operating system to purchase a legitimate one, depending on what cracked version or method they are using to steal XP.

Like everything Microsoft seems to do, the release of SP1 was controversial. First of all, critics say that Microsoft was informed about the security flaw months before the release of SP1, but did nothing to patch the problem until SP1 was released.

According to C-Net, SP1 includes more than 300 security and performance patches, which seems excessive for a piece of software that was praised for its architectural soundness when it was released.

C-Net only gave SP1 a six out of 10. They praised the scope of the patches, the ease of use, the addition of the Java Virtual Machine and the fact that it comes with an uninstall option. On the negative side, they claimed that the upgrade is too big, weighing in at more than 130 Megabytes. That’s a long download for some people, and an extra $10 if you want to purchase the upgrade CD. One user told people to save their money and just download the free security patches until Microsoft offers a more compelling reason to upgrade.

C-Net also said that not all of the features, including the application default control panel, are all that great, and it isn’t as fast as it could be.

Another controversial XP-ism is the fact that it comes bundled with Media Player 9, an audio and video platform that hasn’t been officially released yet, and it can’t be uninstalled unless you take drastic steps. Typically programs come with uninstallers, but this program is so embedded within the XP architecture that it was clearly meant to stay.

Most people are probably happy to keep Media Player 9, but some users would probably prefer to use an older player that supports portable music players that use either serial or parallel connectors. It also doesn’t support CD burning using Roxio software.

All of the criticism goes to show that you can’t build a platform to make everyone happy, no matter how many courts and politicians get involved. Still, it may be a little early to criticize XP.

My roommate’s computer has XP at home, and I love it. It doesn’t crash, it’s faster than previous Windows platforms, and the interface is extremely user-friendly. I haven’t made use of even a tenth of the special XP media features, but apparently they’re pretty good too.

I’ve noticed that the people who have the most problems with this platform are not your typical computer semi-illiterates who use it for e-mail, word processing and the Web, but your more hardcore programming types with greater demands for performance and a higher set of expectations.

Do you need SP1? The answer to that is eventually, because at the rate that hackers are finding vulnerabilities in XP, SP2 can’t be too far away, and it probably won’t work unless SP1 is already in place.

If you have a legal version, go to Windows Update at http://windowsupdate.microsoft .com and fill your boots. It might take a little while to download it, but it’s probably safer to get one big patch for all those security than to rely on a few dozen band-aids. The Java Virtual Machine can be pretty useful as well for serious Web browsers and gamers but you can, download this on its own from http://java.sun.com .

At its core, SP1 is a conciliatory attempt by Microsoft to diffuse widespread government criticism and antitrust suits that allege Windows XP, like their previous operating system platforms, was designed to freeze out and eliminate the competition. When you download SP1, you can find a new button "Set program access and defaults" in the control panel’s Add or Remove Programs window. This allows you to change your default programs and allowing you to customize your Internet browser, e-mail, instant messenger, media players, and Java Virtual Machine – i.e. Netscape over Internet Explorer, Eudora over Outlook Express, Quicktime over Windows Media Player.

While you can choose these programs as defaults, you still can’t erase the bundled Microsoft media programs. Besides taking up disk space – although that’s not really a problem with today’s huge drives – you will be prompted or directed towards the Microsoft programs while attempting to load software and open files because according to Microsoft it’s up their competitors – such as Real, MusicMatch, AOL Messenger – to build the plug-ins that allow you to see your preferred programs. It’s just the nature of the beast, and the absolute minimum they could do to comply with antitrust suits.

For more information on Windows XP and SP1, visit www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/ . You can also find reviews and more downloads and SP1 for XP at www.downloads.com and www.zdnet.com .




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