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So what is it about Win2k security MS won't enhance?

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If you want the 'security enhancements' of Windows XP SP2 but you're running an earlier version of Windows, then you're going to have to upgrade, Microsoft has been confirming to the public prints this week. Despite this being highly significant for the many companies still running Windows 2000, Microsoft has been confirming it pretty quietly - CNET and Microsoft Watch both seem to have been given statements on demand, and Redmond does not yet seem to be exactly bulging with detail on the subject.

Which is a pity, because the information the company has given out so far is sufficiently unclear for us to confidently predict the arrival of a clarification.

For example, what is meant by "enhancement?" There are some things in XP SP2 which you could reasonably think of as security updates, and others that most people would accept are better classed as enhancements, that is a new feature as opposed to a fix for something that turned out to be broke. But there's fuzzy territory in between and, erm, things get even fuzzier if you consider that it's IE's security in general that turned out to be broke. Microsoft therefore needs to nail down precisely what it is that it considers an enhancement in SP2, and tell it's customers.

It also needs to say whether it thinks it is just restating policy from a few months back, when it said it didn't have immediate plans to port security and feature enhancements to older versions, but that it was working on plans for these. Security-wise it still has to be working on plans for these, because it remains committed to providing security support for them. So it really does have to come up with the plans, specifying where security support ends and enhancements provision begins.

But the noises coming out of Redmond speak of a company that's thinking on its feet (something that Microsoft is almost supernaturally bad at doing). It tells CNET it doesn't have plans "to deliver Windows XP SP2 enhancements for Windows 2000 or other older versions of Windows", and you'll note this just says "enhancements" rather than security enhancements, while Microsoft Watch gets something that could have an entirely different and more general meaning: "We never committed to back porting technologies", which could mean lots of stuff, but: "Our commitment has been to provide the greatest possible level of security to all our customers. We will continue to do this for IE and for previous versions of Windows."

When it comes to Win9x Microsoft clearly does have a point when it rules out 'retrofitting' new technologies to the older operating systems. But Windows 2000 is a substantially different matter, because XP at least began life as a rev of Win2k, so the technical arguments against giving it most of what XP's getting are rather more nebulous. There is a more sustainable argument that it is not cost-effective for Microsoft to support Win2k in this way, but if that is the argument, Microsoft should say so.

If, on the other hand, it argues that the difficulties inherent in fixing all of the older operating systems, lumping Win9x, NT and Win2k together, present a mammoth task and would take resources away from securing XP, then it is fibbing.

Securing Win2k alongside XP, as far as the enhancements/technologies/fixes that actually do provide extra security are concerned, ought not to be a major cost or headache. Essentially, it's something Microsoft's major business customers could legitimately demand, and they could equally legitimately be extremely annoyed at being told it's about time they switched to XP.

Exquisitely, a fair slice of the problem for your honest megacorporation running 50,000 Win2k stations lies in the close association of Internet Explorer (et al) and the operating system. If IE is so inextricably bound into the OS that a less than secure IE means a less than secure OS, then yes, 'upgrade to XP' does have a certain amount of persuasiveness. But if said megacorporation contemplated its rotting (and frankly these days, rather tired-looking) Microsoft browsers and mused 'Mozilla.. Opera... Firefox' it might find itself less inclined to do the XP rollout than it used to be. "Hell, shove Opera onto them and see if wee can hold out until Longhorn..."

Microsoft is therefore potentially shooting itself in the foot by creating an impression of relative insecurity in non-XP IE. And if people start thinking in terms of a switch of browser and email client being a cost-effective security fix for Windows (they've been told often enough), then (as Microsoft itself worried all those years back, with reference to Netscape) they could also start thinking the underlying platform was a damn sight less important than they've been led to believe.

If Microsoft thinks 'upgrade to XP' is an offer users can't refuse, then it's making a big mistake. Because they just might. ®

Related links

XP SP2 fixes and enhancements
SP2 on XP Home
WinXP SP2 = security placebo?
Security ‘impossible’ for Win9x, buy XP now, says MS exec

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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