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No more Mr Nice WinXP – the Beast emerges as RC1 looms

Built-in cops get switched on

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WinXP diaries Earlier this week Microsoft released a 'final' public interim build of Windows XP, prior to producing Release Candidate 1 in about ten days time. One of the more interesting things about this build, 2481, is that at this point Microsoft has decided to freeze the new user interface, so at least theoretically it has the look and feel of the final shipping product.

But 2481 has other significant features, and not very welcome ones at that - the Beast, it would appear, has awakened.

Although I'd intended to take a look at 2481 anyway, I was driven to do so yesterday by a series of Microsoft-triggered events, of which more anon. For the moment, suffice to say that if you're running beta 2 (build 2462) and you spot that there's a critical update for it on Windows Update, just don't install it, OK? Don't.

First looks at 2481 kind of leave you wondering where the radical new UI that was hyped to the skies all those month ago actually went. What we've got now is pretty similar to the UI in the pre-beta 2 code, and that's just a bit of rearranging of folder structures into something somebody thinks is more logical. Alongside this there's the 'bubble up' system on the start menu that presents the most used apps first. Aside from that the icons have been twiddled with and - the most obvious big difference between 2481 and 2462 - there are no icons on the desktop.

None of this seems particularly hard or radical to me. I keep trying to benefit from the new folder structures, but I keep giving up and switching to classic view so I can get things done. The bubble up I quite like, but the clear desktop is just plain silly, and the bolt-on that's intended to keep it clear is sillier still. It pops up at irregular intervals, tells you you've got icons on your desktop you haven't used for a while, and asks if it can throw them away please. This can happen just after you've installed a program so, gosh-wow, you've never used that icon. Yet. This wizard is related to Clippy.

But the real news of 2481 is the amount of 'no more Mr Nice Redmond' that's infiltrated it. It looks distinctly likely that all of that stuff you were paranoid about is getting switched on at last. The 'cookie minder' privacy settings have finally been switched on, putting Doubleclick et al squarely in the crosshairs, MP3 has been practically outlawed, numerous Microsoft services are more in your face than ever, and the search dialogue has sprouted a ruddy animated dog.

The wretched mut will surely turn out to be the greatest irritant, but it's the least of your worries.

Cutting Cookies the Microsoft Way

The privacy system incorporates P3P, the idea of this being that sites will carry standard privacy statements in a format that can be understood by the browser, which can then decide what the user wants to do with the site, depending on the preferences they've already set. In The Register's view this is pure, pointless hokum that we'll only support under protest if the system takes off.

As far as IE6 is concerned, the loaded aspect of the privacy settings is the preset default, which is where the vast majority of users are going to leave them. In 2481 the default is medium, and this declines to accept third party cookies. Taking The Register as an example, this will block the cookie for a Doubleclick ad, this being a third party cookie.

This might well strike you as a good thing, but consider the consequences. Most sites that fund themselves via advertising are dependent on third party organisations like Doubleclick. Very large Web operations, like for example Microsoft, needn't be because they have the resources to do the ad serving themselves, so they can manage without third party cookies. So by happy coincidence, you could say, Microsoft's cookie defender activities will tend to help Microsoft while hurting smaller rivals.

But maybe not quite yet. The Register certainly had a stabbing pain in the corporate wallet when IE blocked one Doubleclick cookie from our front page, but a quick check of the MSN UK homepage (which of course installs as the default homepage for UK users when you install XP) revealed nine blocked cookies. We're entirely unable to check to see if this works for MSN US as well, because even with all cookying switched off and security at high, IE still redirects us to msn.co.uk. So Microsoft is taking the precaution of not needing cookies anyway.

One last thing on MSN. The URL that flashes by on the way the the MSN UK homepage is as follows:

http://www.msn.co.uk/webinclude/migratecookiesacrossdomains.asp?URL=/Default.asp

I don't know what it means, but it sounds sinister.

MP3 gets the E

In the form that shipped with 2462, Windows Media Player is uninspiring but largely unthreatening. It seemed to give up whining about not being the default pretty fast, and although Microsoft had thoughtfully sabotaged the quality of MP3 recording to make its own WMA format look good, you could set it to use MP3 rather than WMA. But not any more you can't.

It's possible - I haven't checked yet - that some registry fiddling will let you use MP3 again, but out of the box WMP is now hard-wired as WMA only, with the box you used to use to change format greyed over. Next to this is something that is if anything even more despicable. It's a button labelled MP3 Information. Click on it and it takes you straight to the WMP home page, which didn't actually have any MP3 information on it when I looked. But presumably in the shipping version of WinXP you'll go straight to one of the many 'why MP3 stinks and why WMA is great' pages Microsoft hosts.

Shortly after this shock discovery I tripped over a couple of idiocies that illustrate why WMP/WMA aren't great, and why they should be avoided. I checked the unbootable but still readable 2462 partition for an MP3 file, to confirm that WMP still actually plays MP3, which it does. Try to play a WMA file on that partition though, and it doesn't - it reports I don't have a licence for this music, even with the 'protect my music' box unchecked (you can still uncheck this, but for how much longer?).

The reason for this is that WMP is still busily managing your licences whatever you do to the preferences settings. The 'licence' for the particular track I was trying to play is something that the unbootable 2462 partition is aware of (although WMP still officially insists it isn't licensed, because it was copied from an audio CD). The new 2481 partition doesn't know about it, however, so won't play it.

WMP gets around this little silliness, but only sort of, via a backup and restore system. So for example if I'd had to reinstall after a machine failure and wanted my music back, I'd simply restore the backed up licence data. But what about this scenario? On your home network you've collected all you favourite tracks and recorded them on a big, fat hard disk. The licence data is on that machine, so if you want to listen to them from another machine in another room, you can't, unless you start cloning the licence data on that machine. Which is presumably tricky. So in snuggling up to the record industry by making it difficult for people to pass around copied music in WMA format, Microsoft has torpedoed one of the most obvious applications for PC-based home entertainment.

Aside from these little difficulties, there's something shifty about the licence backup and restore procedure as well. When you try to restore, XP goes into one of those little routines where it uses the web to link up to something you don't know about to do something it's not telling you about, then it tells you it's OK for them to be restored. A close relation of product activation? Is there a database of offenders and compromised licences out there already, or is it just getting you used to the idea before the system gets switched on?

There's probably quite a lot more of this sort of stuff in 2481, but unfortunately my installation is sufficient of a dog for it to border on unusable. I'll try it on a different machine next, and see if it turns out to be a little more stable. ®

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