In a surprising turn of events, Microsoft has pushed back the release date for the second Windows XP service pack to the third quarter of 2004. SP2 was long expected to debut before the end of 2003, a year after SP1 made the rounds.
The change in plans came to light by way of Microsofts Product Lifecycle Web site, which details future support timelines for the companys products.
"Third quarter next year would put anywhere from 18 to 24 months between the first two service packs," Joe Wilcox, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, told BetaNews. "This is a much longer cycle than between Windows 2000 service pack releases."
The possible implications of the move are far reaching. A yearlong delay gives Microsoft significant time to further its integration strategy with Windows XP – building more components directly into the operating system.
"Its possible that Microsoft is preparing a more substantive-than-usual service pack that would add new features to Windows XP or hybrids Media Center and Tablet PC," said Wilcox.
One such potential feature is Microsofts PC Satisfaction package, currently in beta testing. PC Satisfaction extends the native functionality of Windows XP with services such as an enhanced firewall and virus scanner that give customers a better Windows experience out of the box.
Although Microsoft has not yet announced how it plans to issue PC Satisfaction in its final form, the company hinted that a new firewall would be enabled by default in the next Windows XP update.
It is unclear how the delay will affect the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. Microsoft executives previously targeted late 2004 for a release to manufacturing and planned to have Longhorn on store shelves by mid-2005.
However, an extended Windows XP lifecycle gives Redmond more time to maneuver and opens the door for Longhorn to debut in early 2006.
A 2006 release date puts almost five years between Microsofts consumer operating system releases, following the launch of Windows XP in 2001. Microsoft has previously denied considering an interim operating system release in the form of Windows XP Second Edition, but a two-year development timeframe for Service Pack 2 may raise the possibility once again.
In the meantime, consumers and businesses will need to be vigilant about keeping Windows XP patched with the latest updates from Microsoft, rather than waiting for the convenience of a service pack, noted Jupiters Wilcox.
The issue of patching came to a head this week after many Windows users fell victim to the Blaster Internet worm, despite Microsoft issuing a patch for the security hole in July. Microsoft has since told BetaNews it plans to improve the method in which patches are installed, as well as better educate customers on the steps needed to protect their systems.
"A second half 2004 release does not have to mean a crisis for consumers," said Wilcox. "When used properly, Windows XPs Automatic Update keeps the OS up to date."
Microsoft was unavailable for comment by press time.