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184 - Service Pack 2 for Windows XP

If you are receiving your Windows Update notifications, you already know that Microsoft has released Service Pack 2 for installation for all XP users. The primary thrust behind Service Pack 2 is to improve Internet security. This bulletin will provide some information and advice about installing this Service Pack.

There is also an important note at the very end, for Windows 98, WIndows Me and Windows 2000 users.

And finally, the subject of security is much too long to deal with here so please don't consider this to be all you need to know about security. It isn't. Now, here's the tip . . .

Installing Service Pack 2 in not really optional -
The first thing I want to say about Service Pack 2 is that it really isn't going to be optional. It supersedes any security releases you may have previously installed and it will almost immediately become the baseline product for XP. The size of the update alone will tell you how sweeping a change it is. It can take many hours to download on dial-up, and it's even too long to sit and wait for on DSL. Even after the download, the actual installation can take an hour. That's about how long it took to install XP in the first place, so you realize how much of the operating system is being changed. Microsoft does offer to mail you a CD with the download on it. This avoids the long download but it will delay your receipt of the software by at least 6 weeks. If you are on dial-up service, please feel free to contact us. Computer Skills Group has the Service Pack available on CD.

Microsoft's warning messages -
Prior to the official release of Service Pack 2, Microsoft published a list of programs which "might not" function properly with Service Pack 2 installed. That list had over 260 common applications listed, including Norton Anti-Virus, AOL 9.0, and many of Microsoft's own applications such as the Office suite of products. . None of this is surprising if you understand that SP2 is not a trivial change to the operating system. SP2 involves conceptual changes as to how the XP operating system works. The extensive nature of the code revisions would therefore be expected to cause some application programs to fail to operate at all, while others continue to operate but would have problems with some of their features not working properly.

Having noted that, I will tell you now that I have experienced few, if any, problems from installing SP2 on home computers. I believe that many of the problems noted by Microsoft were found in the more technically complex areas of corporate networks. Stand-alone PC's of my customer base have not experienced problems from this installation and I am recommending that you install it with confidence now.

For the record, some programs on the Microsoft list -
You might think that since Microsoft wrote most of the applications you are running on your computer (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Frontpage, Outlook, Outlook Express, Access, etc.) that you won't have a problem. Good thought, but no luck. They are just as hard hit by this change as anyone. At least one version of all of those programs appears on the problem list, as are many other common programs from other companies. Here are just a few examples from the list:

I am not telling your this to frighten you away from doing this install. It's just for your information, in case something does not work after the install. It gives us a clue as to what the difficulty is and who we might have to talk with to resolve it.

Before you install Service Pack 2 -

As you install XP Service Pack 2, a caution note -
There is one mistake you can make rather easily when doing this install. I've already told you that the changes are extensive. Many of those changes get applied during the next re-boot. Here's the mistake you can make. You start the re-boot and the computer seems to freeze. It doesn't complete the boot and there are no messages telling you to wait. Do not shut the computer down, thinking it's frozen. It isn't. It's just working. Give it plenty of time to finish booting.

Using Internet Explorer as your default browser -
The increase in threats to Internet connected computers has been dramatic in just this past year. A recent report I read said that at this time last year (2003), about 1000 new viruses (meaning viruses, worms, trojans, etc.) had been found. In the same time frame this year (2004), the number of new viruses found has exceeded 5000! I mention this because many of these viruses work by attacking the security gaps found in Internet Explorer. Consequently, some not-so-technical people such as TV news reporters and newspaper columnists have been advising you to stop using Internet Explorer as one way to reduce your vulnerability to attacks. They mean well but as with many things in life, there are consequences associated with replacing Internet Explorer with another browser. The one that you care about here is that if you use any browser other than Internet Explorer, Microsoft's Windows Update will not work. You will be unable to even connect to Windows Update. You can generally use another browser for surfing the Internet, but certain applications will not talk to anything but Internet Explorer.

What changes will I see after installing Service Pack 2?
Most of what has been changed by SP2 will be transparent to you as a user. One thing which will not be transparent is that they will have turned on a "firewall". If you have never had a firewall before, you will start to see information windows opening, telling you that the Internet is requesting access to your computer and asking you to approve block that access. If you have just started up a program such as an anti-virus program, and you see a notice that your antivirus vendor is requesting access to your PC, then it is likely that the anti-virus vendor is trying to read your machine to see if your anti-virus files are up to date. I would allow this access. On the other hand, if you are not just starting up a program and a message pops up saying that someone whose name you do not recognize is trying to access your machine, then I advise you to block that access.

Service Pack 2 does NOT give you a full firewall -
Full firewalls (such as the free program called ZoneAlarm) allow you to block access in both directions. They not only monitor requests from the Internet, asking to access your PC but also, but also requests coming from your computer to the Internet. SP2 builds in a one-way firewall, monitoring only the incoming access requests. If your computer has been infected with spyware, for example, the spyware will still be able to contact it's own web site and send spying information to that website. This is an outgoing request and SP2 will not prevent that.

A final note for Windows 98/Me/2000 users -
I am speculating here but I believe that the release of this service pack for XP will mark the end of support for older versions of Windows. If you are a Windows 98, Windows Me, or Windows 2000 user, you should be thinking about upgrading to Windows XP or buying a new machine which comes with XP. If you don't, you will run the risk of increasingly seeing new attacks for which Microsoft will not be releasing "patches" to fix or prevent. Windows XP with SP2 is going to rapidly become the baseline for fighting attacks and anyone running older software will be left unsupported.

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