Windows XP SP2: Trouble Ahead for Developers, Users

Opinion: It sounds like a small milestone, but the second release candidate of Service Pack 2 is a big deal-it's the last rehearsal for the pack's significant turns in security.

The major security changes in Windows XP Service Pack 2 mean big trouble for developers and users, a fact highlighted by Microsofts introduction this week of the packs second release candidate—the last major test before it hits the streets.

Microsoft has a history of major releases with understated names, and Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) is no exception. Windows for Workgroups 3.11 was a major technical upgrade over Windows for Workgroups 3.10 or Windows 3.11. Windows NT 3.51 had huge changes compared with Windows NT 3.50—a version you didnt want to run.

So it is with Windows XP SP2 and the parallel Service Pack 1 to Windows Server 2003. Like those earlier .01 Windows updates, it implements large changes in the internals of Windows.

But SP2 also adds major new user features. SP2 changes are largely but not exclusively related to security enhancements, with a few nonsecurity touches thrown in, such as a new Bluetooth stack (golly gee, just what I was waiting for).

Release Candidate 2 (RC2) of SP2, released this week, should be the last extensive trial run before SP2 hits the streets in late July, or so the plans go now.

Will XP SP2 cause problems for users and developers? You can bet your last dollar it will. If the security changes in Service Pack 2 were not going to cause problems, they would have been done long ago. Most of them, anyway.

Applications will break. Network connections will fail, or appear to fail. Users will be forced to upgrade programs and devices that may not be under active support. This is something Microsoft tries not to do.

But even in forums reflexively hostile to Microsoft, there is a general recognition that SP2 will make Windows XP a more secure product. Microsoft has done some things that are basically invisible but will make a difference, such as recompiling large amounts of the operating system with compiler options that prevent most buffer overflows.

(Actually, the options the company uses should prevent most stack overflows. Heap overflows are generally more difficult to exploit but wouldnt generally be fixed by this option.)

Next Page: A security wizard will greet users with a freshly installed SP2.