December 11, 2003 10:49 AM PST

Microsoft gets Windows XP update ready

Microsoft is set to release a test version of the next update to Windows XP, which adds security features as well as improved support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks.

The beta version of Windows XP Service Pack 2 is expected to be made available to testers soon via Microsoft's developer Web site. The final version is expected to be released in the first half of next year, Microsoft said.

"The Windows XP SP2 beta is intended to provide software developers and IT professionals an opportunity to conduct early testing and to allow Microsoft to collect valuable customer feedback," the software company said in a fact sheet it provided to reporters. "During this beta, Microsoft hopes to garner significant feedback from developers and IT professionals that will be incorporated into and improve the final product."

Microsoft said that the software will be made available to information technology managers and developers via the MSDN Web site, and the company also will test the software using a number of people who have registered to be beta testers. In all, there will be hundreds of thousands of testers, Microsoft said.

Among the security improvements in Service Pack 2 are a beefed-up version of Windows Firewall, previously called Internet Connection Firewall, and software designed to block pop-up ads and prevent the unintended downloading and installation of software. The company also turned off the Windows Messenger service, which had been abused by some hackers.

The improved firewall will be turned on by default and is designed to prevent all ports from accepting information from outside networks, unless permitted to by an application.

Microsoft also said it has taken a number of steps to reduce a type of exploit known as a buffer overrun, but the company warned that it is probably impossible to completely eliminate such vulnerabilities.

"Although no single technique can completely eliminate this type of vulnerability, Microsoft is employing a number of security technologies to reduce the likelihood and potential of an attack in a number of different ways," Microsoft said.

Additionally, the company said the new Windows XP will make it easier for customers to turn on the automatic update feature, which downloads and installs critical updates automatically.

Microsoft stressed the importance of the additional security features for smaller businesses and consumers. "All computers that are connected to the Internet need protection against network-based attacks like Blaster," Microsoft said. "This protection is especially important for non-enterprise businesses customers and home customers connected to the Internet via cable modem, DSL or dial-up, as well as mobile laptop users who may not always be protected by a corporate firewall."

The software maker has been under pressure to improve the security of Windows after a spate of high-profile attacks earlier this year. The company has said that securing its code is a key focus in its development of Longhorn, the next major release of Windows. However, it has also said it will make improvements before that operating system arrives. Microsoft has not said when the OS will ship, but it is not expected until late 2005 or 2006.

The new Service Pack will upgrade Windows XP to support a later version of the short-range Bluetooth wireless technology, Microsoft said. It also includes a utility that makes it easier to connect a PC in a wide range of wireless hot spots, places where wireless Web access is available to the public, without adding special software.

Microsoft said that the features in the beta represent just a "subset" of those that will be in the final release.

"Things could be removed," said Matt Pilla, senior product manager for the Windows group. "Undoubtedly, things will be added."

Pilla said that more security features are likely to be added, but did not go into specifics. "Certainly, the focus of this release is largely security-related technologies."

With SP2, the company also is adding some of the Windows Media 9 technology into Windows Media Player because of its improved security, Pilla said.

 

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