Software developers can now test drive the latest update to Microsoft's Windows XP operating system after the company released a beta version of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) to testers in its MSDN developer programme.
The company released the advance copy of XP SP2 to give IT professionals a chance to test and give feedback on latest features and configuration changes in SP2. Many of those changes were introduced to make computers running XP less susceptible to viruses and worms, such as the recent Blaster.
Microsoft called the XP SP2 beta version release a "milestone" in its effort to make XP and its customers more secure. The features released this week are a "subset" of those that will be included in the final release of SP2. Beta testers' feedback will help Microsoft determine which features to include and omit. ( www.microsoft.com/presspass/newsroom/winxp/WindowsXPSPFS.asp.)
Among the changes in the operating system is an improved version of firewall software that ships with XP. Formerly known as the Internet Connection Firewall, that software is now called the Windows Firewall and is turned on by default, blocking Windows communications ports that are not being used by software applications installed on an XP machine.
Beta testing will ensure the Windows Firewall does not disrupt software applications running on Windows when SP2 ships to customers, Microsoft said.
Microsoft also turned off a controversial administrative tool called Windows Messenger service, which allowed computers on a network to display text messages in pop-up desktop windows. That feature had been discovered by spammers and used to display advertisements and had recently been the subject of a critical security patch from Microsoft.
Other security changes in XP SP2 are more subtle.
Microsoft changed Windows implementation of RPC (Remote Procedure Call) that will make it harder for attackers to exploit that service. Recent worms such as Blaster and Nachi used a security vulnerability in RPC to infect Windows machines.
The company also locked down the Component Object Model (Com) that governs the way software applications run in the Windows environment and exchange information over a computer network. Security holes in a component of Com called the Distributed Component Object Model (DCom) were behind the Blaster and Nachi internet worms earlier this year.
Changes in the software used to compile Windows XP's underlying computer code has also made the operating system less vulnerable to buffer overrun attacks, which are flaws in underlying software code that can allow hackers to crash Windows or take control of vulnerable systems.
On the application front, Microsoft has changed the Internet Explorer web browser, Outlook Express e-mail client and Windows Messenger instant messaging program, making it harder to use those programs for launching malicious programs disguised as web page downloads or e-mail and IM file attachments.
Windows XP SP2 also contains a host of other enhancements, including improvements to the Automatic Update feature so that updates are easier for users with low-capacity dial-up connections to download and install.
Other improvements include a new version of Windows Media Player, better support for wireless hotspots and wireless devices such as keyboards, wireless printers and PDA using the Bluetooth wireless technology.
Feedback from developers on the beta version of XP SP2 will be used to improve the final version of the product, due in the first half of 2004.
Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service