Windows XP update could cause support chaos

The overhauled OS is due out in the third quarter

The major changes to Windows XP included in the upcoming Service Pack 2 are expected to cause support headaches, and analysts, users, PC makers and Microsoft Corp. are all expecting a spike in help desk calls.

SP2 is due out in the third quarter, so it could be available as soon as next month. The service pack, which will be downloaded automatically into many PCs through Microsoft's Windows Update service, could break current applications, disrupt networking setups and prompt nontechnical users to make PC configuration decisions that may be beyond their grasp.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is still working on a plan to support the security-focused update. "We're working hard on getting together a support plan," said Matt Pilla, a senior product manager at the software maker. One decision has been made, however: Microsoft will offer no-charge, worldwide telephone support for the service pack, Pilla said.

Microsoft is returning to its policy to provide free support for service packs after leaving support for Windows XP SP1 to the PC makers, Pilla said. Nevertheless, Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and Gateway Inc. are also gearing up for the release of SP2 and will support their customers, spokespeople for those PC makers said.

Support directly from Microsoft is more valuable than help provided by PC vendors because it is more in-depth, said Victor Go, vice president of technology at Landmark Theatre Corp., which has about 600 PCs running Windows.

"We don't call unless it is something extremely technical that would require something beyond the first-line help desk. We used to try the support that goes with the PC, but whether it is HP or IBM, we just never got the response we needed," Go said.

Although Microsoft has deemed Windows XP SP2 a service pack, the update is more comparable to a Windows upgrade. SP2 contains bug fixes and updates, but it also offers new features and makes significant changes to the Windows software in four main areas: network protection, memory protection, e-mail security and browsing security.

Microsoft will have to treat SP2 like a new operating system release, said Rob Helm, a director of research at Directions on Microsoft Inc., an industry research company based in Kirkland, Wash. "It is that level of change," he said.

The anticipated changes are making Go and other users uncomfortable. "Businesses like us don't run the latest version of an operating system. We did not roll out XP until almost a year after it came out," Go said. "It is kind of scary that in order to get the required updates, we also get all these enhancements, which is usually a separate project."

Microsoft has made something of a trade-off with SP2, focusing on security at the expense of compatibility. As a result, SP2 can render existing applications inoperable. Microsoft has urged developers and IT professionals to test the update. A second release candidate, likely the final test version, was made available earlier this month (see story).

The changes combined with the automatic update are especially worrying to Thomas Smith, manager of desktop engineering at a large Houston-based company. During testing of the service pack, he found that the 5,000 or so Windows XP desktops he manages will no longer be able to connect to the home office with the update installed.

"It will break our enterprise to a point," he said. The PCs use the Internet and VPN software from Cisco Systems Inc. to connect. What's more, because SP2 switches on the Windows Firewall by default, Smith's remote management tool, supplied by Altiris Inc., can't connect to the PCs to correct the problem, he said.

"We will have lost contact to our end users through Altiris because the ports will be locked," Smith said. "With the firewall being flipped on, our ability to fix any problems without having end users call the help desk is gone, and help desk is money."

While Smith's problems might be isolated, SP2 makes changes to Windows that all users will notice. For example, Windows Security Center will alert a user if his system isn't sufficiently secured. Also, a security wizard pops up after installing the update, asking a user to make decisions about settings such as automatic updating. Another new feature is a setup tool for wireless networks.

Consequently, all users may have reasons to grab the phone and call support. "The first time Windows Security Center pops up and says your computer is not secure, that can lead to a panic attack," said Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. "Or what if a warning you've never seen before appears when downloading a Web page?"

Microsoft recognizes that there will be an increase in support demand. "I definitely think we will see ramped-up support requests," Microsoft's Pilla said. "What we have here is a security-focused service pack release that is going to have some significant impact on people's systems."

Microsoft doesn't yet know how it will deliver support. It could establish a dedicated, toll-free support line, Wilcox suggested. In the U.S. and Canada, the 1-866-PCSAFETY support line it has for issues related to computer viruses could be extended to cover SP2, he said.

With security being one of Microsoft's top priorities, the company has set aside marketing dollars and is planning campaigns online and with PC makers to get users to update their systems, Rich Kaplan, a corporate vice president in Microsoft's Security Business & Technology unit, said.

"The benefit of getting people to SP2 outweighs any increased support burden," Kaplan said. He emphasized the urgency for IT professionals and developers to download and test SP2 and report any issues to Microsoft.

Directions on Microsoft's Helm agreed. "This is the right thing to do," he said. "Users continue to be whacked by worms."

A first beta of the Windows XP update was released in December, followed by RC1 in March. Hundreds of thousands of developers and IT professionals have already tried out the software. "It represents one of our most broadly tested products to date," Pilla said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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