Deadline forces Automatic Updates users to do full Service Pack 2 install

A special tool that blocks the download of Service Pack 2 on Windows XP PCs expired last week, ending an eight-month reprieve from SP2 for some users who rely on the Automatic Updates feature in Windows to keep their systems up to date.
Following the release of SP2 last August, Microsoft Corp. agreed to temporarily offer the blocking tool after hearing from Automatic Updates customers who weren't prepared to deal with the service pack.

Users could set a Windows registry key to instruct the system to skip the downloading and installation of SP2 but still download other critical updates.

The April 12 deadline -- a 240-day extension -- was established to give users adequate time to prepare for the mammoth update. SP2 is now delivered to all Automatic Updates users and is available at the Windows Update Web site.

"I am ready for XP SP2 now," said Thomas Smith, manager of desktop engineering at a large Houston-based company, which he declined to name. Smith had earlier blocked the SP2 download on the 5,000 PCs he manages. His firm began upgrading systems last month after finishing work on a complementary update that users will apply so they can keep accessing certain Web sites that SP2 blocks, he said.

Still, Smith isn't happy with the way Microsoft is "force-feeding" him the update. "I am glad that we were able to prepare for it, but next time, they need to have a good user roundtable to discuss this," he said. Smith said he expects the upgrade project to be 80% complete within a month.

SP2 is intended to better protect Windows XP users against hackers, viruses and other security risks. However, in the process, SP2 can render applications inoperable and block access to certain Web sites, which prompted many businesses to hold off on installing SP2 so they could take the time to test it with their systems.

Compatibility issues are keeping Reed Smith LLP from immediately upgrading its 2,600 Windows XP machines. The Pittsburgh-based law firm plans to include SP2 in a refresh of its desktop software to be installed starting next year, said David Guilinger, a director in Reed Smith's systems and technology department.
"If we build from scratch, SP2 works fine with our software; if we apply it on top of our existing configurations, we have issues," Guilinger said. "Upgrading introduced too many end-user prompts and conflicts."

Microsoft advised consumers to enable Automatic Updates in Windows XP to patch their systems, but it recommended that businesses use patch management tools such as its Systems Management Server (SMS) and Software Update Services, or third-party products.

The expiration of the blocking tool "affects only machines in a handful of enterprise customers' environments," said Tiffany Allesina, a group product manager at Microsoft, in a statement. Most customers that used the tool have either installed SP2 or now use special tools for patch management, she said.

Microsoft has labeled SP2 a "critical" update and noted that 185 million copies of SP2 have been downloaded to date.

Adoption by enterprise customers is in line with Microsoft's expectations. In February, the company said 77% of about 800 enterprise customers surveyed in late 2004 planned to deploy SP2 sometime in mid-2005.

Holland & Knight LLP upgraded its 3,500 Windows XP clients to SP2 over a six-week period without any hiccups, said Travis Abrams, IT security and systems manager at the Lakeland, Fla.-based international law firm. Holland & Knight tested early releases of the service pack over several months, he said.

The upgrade, performed using Microsoft's SMS product, went smoothly, Abrams said. The primary issues were related to Web sites, some of which had to be added to the list of trusted sites in the Internet Explorer Web browser.

Abrams advised his peers to upgrade as soon as possible but test compatibility with business applications and Web sites first.