Road To XP SP2 Isn't So Easy

The price customers will pay for better security enabled by the new release, now due in August, will be a raft of broken applications, they said.

Some VARs are going so far as to recommend that their clients wait before installing Windows XP SP2. Worse yet, they don't expect to be compensated for the pain of the installs, saying customers expect them to routinely support service pack upgrades, even though SP2 is far from an ordinary service pack.

Lou Giovanetti, co-owner of CPU Sales and Service, Waltham, Mass., expects the service pack to generate a wave of frustrated clients with questions and problems but without a big revenue uptick. CPU Sales and Service is recommending its clients hold off on installing XP SP2. "Whenever a service pack comes out, we see what goes on," he said. "After it has been tested and tried, then we do an install. Let someone else experiment first."

At particular risk with SP2 are older applications written to call "unregistered" or "anonymous" COM objects, VARs said. In the name of higher security, XP SP2 will demand to know a lot more about the distributed applications it calls.

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"There will be problems with any [Visual Basic] app written pre-VB 5 and any DCOM application written prior to 2001," said one integrator. "And, where it gets really squirrely is where people used [Visual Basic Applications edition] to extend Excel, Word or Access." It's virtually impossible to estimate how many corporate applications there are using such code, he added.

Microsoft, which has tried to educate partners and users about XP SP2, said the bulk of consumer applications will run as before, but corporate applications that have been customized may offer a changed user experience. Those who are used to an application behaving in a certain way may now see new dialogue boxes warning them that what they want to do may be dangerous should they want to continue, according to a spokesman.

For XP SP2, Microsoft has rewritten a good chunk of the XP code--some put it at 40 percent. Channel executives did not fault Microsoft for the big changes. Some said, however, that characterizing this release as a service pack may have been a mistake, since that term usually denotes an easy upgrade.

The goal of SP2 is "to enforce better-behaved apps. This is all about doing it right, especially in the wake of the serious hack attacks we've seen," said George Brown, president of Database Solutions, an integrator in Cherry Hill, N.J.

John Parkinson, Cap Gemini's chief technologist for the Americas, is also bullish overall. "We've tested extensively and found problems in the places we expect. They're doing this all for the right reasons," he said.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently acknowledged the issue. Windows XP SP2, he said, "breaks some apps, there's no doubt." But, he said, with each beta release, "it's breaking fewer."

There was also an issue with early versions of SP2 running on new "No Execute" (NX) security technology in AMD and Intel chips. "When you turned it on, the OS tested fine, but there were some applications that were incompatible So, we've now put it under user control to turn it on [or off] for applications," Ballmer told CRN.

STEVEN BURKE contributed to this story.