End Is Near for Windows XP SP1 Support

Microsoft’s decision to end support for Windows 98 and Windows ME got plenty of attention. But another, newer operating system is about to sunset and it could have far more impact.

Microsoft  will end technical support for Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Service Pack 1a (SP1a) on October 10, 2006, nor will the company provide any more security updates.

The company released Service Pack 1 on September 9, 2002, about a year after the release of Windows XP. Support for the USB 2.0 standard and the Set Program Access and Defaults utility are among its most significant improvements. Service Pack 1a came shortly thereafter as a direct consequence of a lawsuit by Sun Microsystems  to remove the Java virtual machine from Windows.

Microsoft declined to discuss the support matter, instead referring internetnews.com to its policy, where it clearly says support for service pack ends 12 months after the successor of that service pack is released, although the company may extend support for 24 months. Service Pack 2 for Windows XP came out on September, 2004.

Think this doesn’t apply to many companies? Think again. An October/November 2005 survey of large enterprises found 61 percent of American respondents had migrated their Windows XP machines to Service Pack 2, and only 36 percent of European respondents were on Service Pack 2, according to Michael Silver, senior analyst with Gartner.

He qualified those figures, saying in the nine months since that survey was done, many firms were in process of migrating. But why wait two years in the first place? Deploying a service pack isn’t much easier than deploying an OS, he said.

“There’s usually a lot of planning and testing that goes into deploying a service pack,” he said. “IT organizations have been wrestling with this for the better part of two years. There were definitely some who were holding out debating if they could skip Service Pack 2 and wait for Service Pack 3.”

That’s become an unfeasible strategy, since Service Pack 3 has been delayed until mid- to late-2007. The contents are still subject to conjecture, but beyond all of the cumulative fixes, SP3 is expected to contain updates for Internet Explorer 7, Windows Media Player 11 and possibly WinFX.

Most of the work in deploying a service pack is in the testing, insuring it works with third-party and home-grown applications. So for a company to determine whether a service pack will break their apps, they have to go through a full test program, and to some, that simply wasn’t appealing. “Some companies didn’t want to roll it out because it’s additional work and would rather spend their time on other things,” said Silver.

Service Pack 2 did feature some big changes. There were changes to Internet Explorer, the addition of gold bar to alert when ActiveX controls were being installed, RPC and security changes and data execution protection that works with the NX flag in newer AMD and Intel chips, among other changes. It was a pretty big release, which is why so many companies didn’t want to bother.

Ironically, it may be large businesses most affected by the cut off, since individuals, small and medium-sized businesses have already been upgraded, whether they knew it or not, through the automatic Windows updates in XP, Silver said. Microsoft encourages use of that feature, and SP2 was sent down via automatic updates.

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