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MS bigs up Windows XP SP2

Beta prelude to security Summer of love

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Microsoft released Windows XP SP2 as a public beta last week, paving the way for a summer debut of Redmond's most ambitious attempt yet to improve the basic security of Windows PCs.

Windows XP SP2 Release Candidate 1 was released to Microsoft customers through a new TechNet portal last Friday. The update features far reaching changes designed to help improve the ability of Windows XP-based computers to withstand malicious attacks from hackers, viruses and worms. In many respects, Redmond is applying the security philosophy (secure by default etc.) it introduced with Windows Server 2003 to its three year-old client OS.

Principal additions with Windows XP SP2 include: Windows Security Centre; automatically turning on Windows Firewall; and browsing enhancements to Internet Explorer (providing far more control of ActiveX controls, for example). Security Centre will let users check the status of their firewall, third-party anti-virus protection and manage automatic software updates from a single point. Automatic Update, in its first iteration, will cover Windows and IE patches only. Office security fixes will have to be applied separately, even with SP2.

Lock down

Less mentioned so far, but arguably more important, is revamped memory protection to prevent buffer overruns, the perennial source of so many security problems. AMD became the first hardware supplier to support this technology with the announcement of its 2.4GHz FX-53 Athlon 64 processor last week. Intel is also committed to supporting the technology in its 32Bit and 64Bit processors from autumn this year onwards.

The Service Pack will also add a pop-up ad blocker to Internet Explorer - the most requested feature according to Rebecca Norlander, Microsoft's group manager for XP SP2 - and a download manager. Norlander said that pop-ups are increasingly used to "dribble" spy ware onto users' machines. Giving users granular control over whether they accept pop-up or ActiveX controls from particular sites is therefore a significant security improvement to IE.

Modification to Outlook Express mean users will get warnings when they click on dangerous attachment types (such as .scr and .pif). OE will no longer download graphics in HTML mail by default, a tactic designed to prevent spammers tracking users who open junk emails.

Shield’s up

Matt Pilla, senior Windows product manager, said that the development focus of Service Pack 2 was to make Windows "more resilient and more manageable". Microsoft is making security "more visible" while adding improved "shield" technology to protect users from malicious threats. "The focus is on security but SP2 is also a conventional service pack," he added.

Windows XP SP2 weighs in at a hefty 273MB or more than twice the size of Service Pack 1a (which comes at the hardly slim line size of 125MB). By Microsoft's own calculations, Service Pack 2 would take 11 hours 30 minutes to download on a dial-up connection.

Microsoft has - not before time - realised long download times are one of the main reasons consumers fail to apply security patches. To address the problem, Microsoft has plans to make CDs featuring the service pack widely available both through its Web site and (possibly) computer resellers.

Application glitches

Windows XP SP2 is scheduled for release by the end of June. Judging by feedback on the eleven newsgroups Microsoft has established to discuss the service pack there's plenty of work needed before then.

Testers have reported bugs including the failure of Windows Security Centre to recognise AV packages or an inability to install to install the popular Zone Alarm personal firewall after applying SP2. Glitches with Outlook Express and IE and some third party apps have also been reported.

Ironing out such problems is exactly why Microsoft released SP2 as a public beta, of course, so users should be grateful to the brave souls who try out the software at this stage of its development.

As significant as what will come with SP2 is what remains absent. Microsoft is still unwillingly to say anything about its plans for GeCAD Software, the anti-virus software vendor it bought last June. Bundling AV software with Windows might raise anti-competition concerns but making use of the technology might make home users less susceptible to worms like Blaster. ®

Related stories

Gates parades Windows security advances
Beefed-up firewall, new version of Update for XP SP2
Vendors wary of MS Windows Firewall
Microsoft enters AV market
Blaster clean-up tool was stellar success - MS

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