New Microsoft support service offers XP users Windows 7 goodies

Beta of 'Fixit Center' software ports Windows 7-style troubleshooters to older OSes

MIcrosoft has launched a new self-support service for Windows XP and Vista users that relies on technology baked into Windows 7.

The combination of desktop client and back-end service gives users of older versions of Windows some of the same functionality that only Windows 7 provides by default, Lori Brownell, Microsoft's general manager of product quality and online support, said Friday. The Fixit Center client is currently in beta, and can be downloaded free of charge.

"Irrespective of what versions people are running, and many aren't running Windows 7 today, we need to support those customers just as well," said Brownell, explaining Microsoft's decision.

Microsoft used the same technology that powers the scripted diagnostic feature within Windows 7, dubbed "Action Center" -- in some cases, the same code -- to craft the client software for Windows XP and Vista.

"It's not as seamless as in Windows 7," Brownell acknowledged, noting that the network troubleshooter in Windows 7 is integrated such that it pops up when users experience problems running Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). "But many of the troubleshooters are exactly the same." Although Microsoft wrote the troubleshooters to add to Windows 7, they were developed so that they would work on older versions of the operating system.

"The value you get with Windows 7 is integration," she said.

The Fixit Center client scans users' PCs on demand, looks for potential problems, then presents a list offering to automatically apply fixes or give the user control over possible solutions to implement. Unlike Windows 7's Action Center, the client must be manually launched in XP or Vista.

Users can link the client to a Windows Live ID account to allow the client to detect hardware and software configurations, then store that information, including any troubleshooting results, on Microsoft's severs. Microsoft technical support personnel can also remotely access the software's log to determine what troubleshooters, if any, were run, and the results -- but only if the user explicitly approves that move. "They can access a history of what troubleshooters have been run, as well as what drivers have been installed," Brownell said, "but they can't access any data files on your hard drive."

The company has no plans to tightly integrate Fixit Center in future service pack updates for Vista -- it's unlikely that Microsoft will release another for XP -- Brownell confirmed. But Microsoft will explore how to beef up the automated troubleshooting concept into the next edition of Windows. "We're talking with the Windows 8 planning team on how best to continue our move toward integration," Brownell said.

Fixit Center can be installed on an unlimited number of PCs, said Brownell, who added that Microsoft is working on an enterprise-focused version for possible release later this year. The current client, which targets consumers and small businesses, doesn't have a final form release schedule. "That will be determined by feedback," Brownell said.

As Microsoft creates additional troubleshooters, they will be passed to the client software via an automatic, in-the-background update process, similar to Windows Update's.

Microsoft's Fixit brand has been in place for nearly one-and-a-half years -- it debuted the automated tools in November 2008, and has crafted scores of them to accompany support documents to help users apply one-time repairs or security mitigations -- but this is the first time that it's pitched the concept of troubleshooters to Windows XP and Vista.

The Fixit Center launch couldn't come at a better time for Windows XP users, who have been in what Microsoft calls "extended support" for over a year. In extended support, Microsoft only provides paid support on a per-incident basis or through its various prepaid support programs.

Windows XP is slated for full retirement from all support, including security updates, in April 2014.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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