RealTime IT News

Windows XP Service Pack 3? Place Your Bets

With Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) all but completely out the door, now rumors have begun flying as to when Windows XP SP3 will go final.

As if it were an office pool, tech pundits have been predicting dates for XP SP3 ranging from this past Monday to the end of April, while Microsoft itself remains noncommittal other than to reaffirm its promised delivery date -- the end of June.

Now, it appears that the earlier dates are clearly out of the running.

Tuesday, Microsoft released XP SP3 Release Candidate 2 (RC2) "Refresh" for public download – taking a step closer to general availability, or GA, according to a company statement. The company first made XP SP3 RC2 available to the general public in mid-February. Thus the term Refresh for this latest release.

As the last service pack planned for XP, many consumers and IT shops are looking forward to SP3 to keep XP viable and enable them to avoid going to Windows Vista quite yet – or ever, in some cases.

"Windows XP SP3 includes all previously released Windows XP updates, including security updates and hotfixes, and select out-of-band releases," according to the SP3 documentation. It also adds support for Network Access Protection (NAP), which is a technology for quarantining untrusted PCs from the network.

NAP debuted in Windows Server 2008 last month and is supported natively in Vista. Incorporating it into XP will help XP machines work more seamlessly on networks with Vista and Windows Server 2008 computers.

"This beta release will be available only on Windows Update, in English, German and Japanese," said a posting on Microsoft TechNet. "Beyond fixes for common Windows Update issues and the inclusion of support for HD Audio, there are no substantial differences between this beta release and XP SP3 RC2," the post continued.

Microsoft's testing process has several stages. The last is RC, or Release Candidate, and the name means what it says. When all the bugs appear to be worked out of the code from going through one or more beta tests, the company releases an RC. Giving it to testers starts a clock running – and if no user reports a major bug during a set period of days, weeks, or months, it is declared done and is released for GA, or General Availability.

If not, repairs are made on the code and another RC is issued, setting the clock to zero and restarting it.

Since last year, XP SP3 has been testing in tandem with Vista SP1 – betas of both were available to the same testers. Since late February, Vista SP1 GA has been phasing in. Last week, in fact, Microsoft posted Vista SP1 for manual download on its Microsoft Download site and announced that automatic downloads from Windows Update will start in mid-April.

Conspiracy theories

All the activity around Vista SP1 couldn't help but trigger rumors regarding when XP SP3 will arrive, along with a conspiracy theory or two. In mid-March, BitTorrent site Mininova posted what purports to be an RC2 image for free download. Notes posted with the code say final rollout was scheduled for March 24.

A Microsoft spokesperson acknowledged in an e-mail sent to InternetNews.com that the bitTorrent code is the real McCoy, but cautioned against using it since it was an interim build for a specific set of testers, and that Microsoft cannot verify the integrity of the bits.

"It’s possible the bits may have been modified with malware or other bad code that Microsoft hasn’t tested," the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, a French site -- PCinpact.com -- has posted what it believes to be an internal Microsoft "change request" that appears to indicate a March 24 launch for tech support for XP SP3. Of course, that date is now gone.

Finally, Malaysian Web site -- TechArp.com – has GA for XP SP3 pegged at arriving during the second half of April. TechArp.com claims to have obtained official Microsoft shipping schedules for both Vista SP1 and XP SP3. According to the site, the schedules accurately pinpointed both Vista SP1's release to manufacturing as well as the date last week, March 18, when it became available for download by the general public.

Microsoft's spokesperson declined to discuss timing except to say that final availability of XP SP3 is still planned for the first half of 2008.

Given that XP SP3 has already been through two release candidates, and now a refresh, tends to indicate that it will arrive sooner rather than later, however.

The apparent constant revision of delivery dates for XP SP3, and the fact that it is running behind Vista SP1, sparked speculation that Microsoft is deliberately trying to delay delivering XP SP3 in order to give Vista SP1 an unfair head start.

"There is no connection – Windows Vista SP1 and Windows XP SP3 have been on different release schedules," the spokesperson said. "We are targeting the first half of 2008 for the release, though our timing will always be based on customer feedback as a first priority."

Ironically, the end of June is also the point at which PC vendors can no longer sell XP with new PCs. The company had originally planned to cut off availability to OEMs at the end of January, but then reversed itself due to the outcry from PC makers and customers.