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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
XP Update Is a Failed Attempt at Simplicity


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Take an online tour of Windows XP, the newest version of Microsoft's operating system. New features are highlighted, along with a discussion of why certain features of XP are being criticized by Microsoft's competitors. (Flash 5 Required)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 15, 2002; Page H07

Windows XP is about to hit its first birthday, and Microsoft is celebrating in characteristic fashion -- with a "service pack" update that combines previously released bug fixes, security patches and other enhancements with one new feature. It's not the most exciting piece of software you will install this year, but it's something that a lot of people will have to deal with sooner or later.

It's also a somewhat depressing example of business as usual in Redmond.

Windows XP Service Pack 1 -- "SP1" in Microsoftese -- is nearly impossible to identify unless you drill down to a new Control Panel screen titled "Set Program Access and Defaults." That name is misleading: "Pick Your Internet Programs" better describes its function, while "Appease the Feds" better explains its origin.

The company pledged to add this interface to Windows as part of its proposed antitrust settlement with the Justice Department. Set Program Access and Defaults -- accessible via an item in the Start menu's "More Programs" submenu and an icon in the "Add or Remove Programs" control panel -- allows you or a computer manufacturer to select a Web browser, e-mail program, instant-messaging software, media player and Java virtual machine. You can also hide unwanted programs that you can't otherwise uninstall (for example, such Microsoft-"integrated" software as Internet Explorer).

Having one screen where you can choose your online applications is a smart idea, one that most other operating systems offer in one way or another. Even earlier versions of Windows have incorporated it: The Internet Options control panel for Internet Explorer has let you select an e-mail application and newsgroup reader since at least version 4.0, which debuted nearly five years ago.

The SP1 update to Windows XP, however, thoroughly botches this job. The program-access control panel, by requiring Internet software to identify itself in a new way, effectively masks the existence of most non-Microsoft Internet applications.

Here's how this works: You can download and install three Web browsers -- Opera 6.05, Netscape 7.0 and Mozilla 1.1. When first launched, each will ask if you'd like to anoint it as your default browser. But when you open the program-access screen, you may see only two browsers: Internet Explorer 6.0 and Netscape 7.0, which has been revised for the XP update. The only way Opera or Mozilla will appear is if you chose one of them as your default browser earlier, in which case it will be identified only as "my current Web browser."

This Kafka-esque behavior continues when you choose e-mail software: Programs that show up in Internet Explorer's Internet Options window are absent from Set Program Access and Defaults.

Of a dozen non-Microsoft applications -- the three Web browsers listed above; the latest version of America Online; Qualcomm's Eudora 5.1.1 e-mail program; media players from Apple Computer, RealNetworks and Musicmatch; instant-messaging software from AOL, Yahoo and "shareware" developer Cerulean Studios; and Sun Microsystems' Java virtual machine software -- only two, the Musicmatch player and Netscape 7.0, showed up properly in Set Program Access and Defaults. (Mozilla's mail component appeared, but not its core Web browser.)

Microsoft says it switched to this new system because it was simpler and more open than the old way, which required software to register itself differently with various parts of Windows.

"We really wanted to provide the simplest way for anybody to plug into this," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows XP.

While this service pack's new interface can look confusing without revisions of Internet software from other developers, he said, it's the best option overall. "Some of these guys won't get around to doing it for a while, but I still feel strongly that that was the right approach," he said.

Developers generally said it wouldn't be much trouble to upgrade their software. A Netscape spokesman said it took "a couple of weeks" to revise the company's browser after Netscape received Microsoft's documentation in late June. Cerulean Studios co-founder Scott Werndorfer said in an e-mail that it would be "probably a day's work or less" to update the company's Trillian instant-messaging program.

But a spokeswoman for RealNetworks said the company didn't see the programming information for this feature until early August and added that it "will take a considerable amount of engineering work" to decipher it.

This whole mess could have been avoided if Microsoft hadn't pushed Internet Explorer so aggressively years ago.

What else does this SP1 update offer beyond the control panel and all those bug fixes and performance tweaks? Its product-activation feature, which tries to prevent software piracy by locking each XP copy to one hardware configuration, is both more lenient (you get three days to reactivate a PC you've heavily modified before Windows locks you out) and more strict (it blocks a set of product license codes Microsoft found being shared among many users).

SP1 also supports high-speed USB 2.0 expansion ports. And the Outlook Express e-mail program now defaults to not letting you open executable attachments, which often hide viruses.

You can fetch this update, typically a 30-megabyte download, via Microsoft's clunky Windows Update site (windowsupdate.microsoft.com) or by ordering a CD-ROM for $9.99. By October, boxed copies of Windows XP should also incorporate the update.

With a release this large, it's fair to ask why Microsoft isn't mailing a CD-ROM to every registered owner of Windows -- or just putting stacks of CDs in computer stores for customers to take home. Unfortunately, the company isn't making either effort, which may explain why so many Windows users continue to run old, insecure versions of Microsoft's software.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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