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WinXP SP1 out next Monday – but can you avoid it?

In the long run, of course not...

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Windows XP Service Pack 1 is complete, and will be available for download and via CD (cost as yet unspecified) from next Monday (9th September). According to the release, it "provides enhanced user experience" and "brings enhanced security, reliability and compatibility to business and home users." It also fixes some bugs, and includes the " required changes of the proposed consent decree signed with the U.S. Department of Justice and nine state attorneys general."

The official announcement does not mention the new shotgun EULA, nor the measures against piracy it includes, but these are pretty well known already. Essentially, Microsoft reserves the right for it and its designated chums to steal your stuff, but they're not going to abuse that right, of course, and Microsoft now explicitly states that unlicensed copies will not qualify for upgrades and fixes. SP1 will refuse to install on systems with well-known leaked keys, SP1 will repair and deactivate cracked installations, and Windows Update will shortly begin checking your key on entry.

These new measures will achieve widespread uptake because they'll be fitted as standard on new PCs shipped from around October, and because they come attached to a handy rollup of fixes, security patches and drivers. It is just about possible for a determined refusenik to avoid the new EULA and to work around having to install SP1, but the effort involved in this is seriously burdensome, and will increase as time goes by.

As an experiment, The Register followed up on a suggestion from Carl Thomas (thanks Carl), who pointed us at Microsoft's Baseline Security Analyzer. With this one, you do the scanning of your machine locally rather than having Windows Update do it for you, and it identifies security issues with your machine, and links to the relevant Microsoft hotfixes. So at least in theory you can audit yourself and download the patches individually for review and installation. Carl notes that as it uses an XML plug-in it doesn't need BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) enabled for it to function.

On a fresh install of Windows XP, it identified nine hotfixes, whereas Windows Update came up with more like a dozen for the same machine. That however shouldn't be particularly surprising, as Microsoft appears to run several different databases for its several and ever-changing update services, and Microsoft security issues do seem to come thick and fast. All of the hotfix links however 404ed on the day we tried, meaning that we had to search for each of them at their new location. But this is probably a database syncing thing rather than a deliberate speedbump.

By applying the individual fixes you seem to be able to avoid the new EULA, with the possible exception of the Windows Media 'Steve Ballmer reserves the right to sleep with your sister' amendment. We decided not to install that one anyway. The fixes do however generally come with a supplementary EULA stressing that unlicensed copies do not qualify for updates, so they're by no means immune to EULA-creep.

Nor do they help you in the slightest in getting hold of driver updates, so BSA is only a partial solution. Carl also points out that you can get a free security scan here, from Pedestal Software. It might not seem entirely logical to avoid getting scanned by Microsoft by getting scanned by somebody else instead, but the Pedestal scan is a demo for its commercial SecurityExpressions product, and provides a lot more detailed information about vulnerabilities than BSA. For what it's worth, this scan found around 15 issues on a fresh XP install.

It is however, er, IE-only, so gets you next to nowhere if you've used SP1 to hide access to IE. Of course, if you've refused to install SP1 and you haven't filed off IE by hand yourself, then you can use a Microsoft product in order to avoid installing Microsoft products. Or something - confusing thing, life... ®

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