XP SP2 Scare — Just another Y2K

August 25th was supposed to be the end of the free world as we know it. Editors spent months preparing headlines such as: A million small businesses go under in one day; Corporate America at a complete standstill; Internet criminals and hackers run amok as normal security features are immobilized; and Death to Microsoft — Bill Gates destroys civilization.

The occasion? Last month’s release of a major Microsoft update known as Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). But like the Year 2000 (Y2K) scare before it, SP2’s catastrophic potential proved to be little more than media scare mongering.

A review of both the Y2K and SP2 news stories reveals a similar trajectory: Doom and gloom in advance of the events; Nervous anticipation right beforehand, and then — nothing. Just as no power grids collapsed and no banking systems imploded on January 1, 2000, there just aren’t any incidents of SP2 havoc.

So let’s cover the XP SP2 update in non-sensational terms, what you need to know about it, how to install it, issues that you might run into and where to go for help.

Easy Xperience
I braced myself for installing SP2 (the download is free by the way). I took some vitamins, a few deep breaths and then prepared for the worst. A few minutes later, it was over. My computer rebooted and — everything was exactly as it had been before. Except now my computer is safer and more secure.

The update (also known as a patch) improves Windows for XP Professional and XP Home Edition security. Essentially, it sets up your computer with stronger security settings and better protection against hackers, viruses and other risks. It adds features that:

  • Protect against harmful attachments, unsafe downloads and online snoopers
  • Improve online privacy
  • Reduces annoying pop-ups
  • Protects against spam
  • Upgrades wireless connection

“With the proliferation of viruses and other broad threats on business and consumer desktops, I can think of no higher priority than trying to ensure the security of personal computers,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.

“Whether the customer is a large enterprise, a small business or an individual,” he says, “Windows XP Service Pack 2 is critical because it addresses today’s exposures in a comprehensive fashion. For anyone currently using Windows XP, my advice is to apply it at your earliest opportunity.”

Minimal Requirements
Most people, fortunately, appear to be heeding that advice. Microsoft is already well on the way to its target of 100 million PC’s updated by the end of October. But if you are one of the many who grew wary due to the last month’s wave of negativity, here are a few pointers to help you survive the SP2 XPerience.

The download requires a relatively unchallenging 233 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM and 1.8 GB of hard drive space. If you don’t have that much disk space, it’s time to go to Start/Programs/Accessories, System Tools/Disk Clean Up to quickly free up enough space.

Microsoft offers three ways to acquire the upgrade. You can download SP2 from the Microsoft XP SP2 site. You can use a free CD (available from Microsoft) or turn on the automatic updates feature on your computer (go to MS’s Protect Your PC site, and it’ll walk you through this simple process.

Microsoft's Windows XP SP2 Web site

The Microsoft XP SP2 Web site has all the information you need to successfully download and install the new update.

No matter how you obtain the update, avoid the custom options when you are downloading it. Once the download is complete, an on screen wizard walks you through installation. After that, you can either wait a long time for your world to collapse, or give yourself a well done and go for a coffee. When you return, carry on your business as before.

One caution: the way Microsoft has set up the download, you may think you have received the complete XP SP2 when, in fact, you haven’t. On my first attempt, I received parts of it, but suspected I didn’t have the complete update. I tried downloading again and managed to get the full package.

On another computer, however, I tried several times, but the Microsoft servers seemed intent on dribbling out the service pack in small amounts. To make sure you have the complete download, access your PC’s control panel (via the Start button) and check to see if you have an icon with matching the Windows XP colors that says “Security Center”. If you have that, you’re all set.

Rare Exceptions The fact that there are a few rare exceptions to my own experience may be why the media whipped itself into a frenzy about all this. My theory is that Microsoft talked to its lawyers, who talked to the lawyers of other computer companies and they all decided it would be best to communicate the worst-case scenario to an unsuspecting public, “just in case.”

What are the exceptions? Certain programs may not work after you install SP2 due to the Windows Firewall blocking what it considers as unsolicited connections to your computer. This may affect Veritas Backup Exec (backup), Symantec Antivirus Corporate Edition 8, and AutoCAD, for example. You can take a look at Microsoft’s complete list of potential problems as well as how to resolve them.

But don’t be too concerned if you see one of your key programs on the list. I use Computer Associates’ eTrust for antivirus and firewall, which the press said would cause problems with SP2 (it didn’t). It is on the list, but it works fine and I didn’t have to download any additional fixes. I also received a warning from my Internet provider (SBC) about potential troubles. They, too, suggested I download a fix just in case. I didn’t, and I don’t appear to need one either.

This reminds me, once again of Y2K. I had the misfortune to buy Symantec’s Y2K fix program. It told me that my PC had literally hundreds of possible worries. None of them turned out to be of any merit.

Anyway, it’s a simple matter to take care of any issues that do actually occur. When one of your problematic programs tries to access the Internet, a Windows Firewall dialog box may pop up to alert you. It gives you the option of unblocking the program, keeping it blocked, or keeping it blocked but alerting you every time it tries to gain access. Choose Unblock if the program is critical to your business. Check Keep Blocking in any other instances. The fact is that a lot of unscrupulous people want you to unblock to serve their own ends. So only click Unblock when you know it’s a program you really need.

If there is a program you need to activate and you don’t get an alert on your screen you have to get a little fancy. Click the Start button and then Run and type wscui.cpl in the Open box, and then click OK. What does wscui.cpl mean? Who knows? Some technical guy might be able to tell you but you don’t need to worry about it. Next, click Windows Firewall and then the Exceptions tab, and then click Add Program. Either select the program if it’s on the list or click browse to find it.

If you run into any problems at all, go to the XP Support Center and it will give you all the help you need. But don’t worry yourself needlessly. SP2 is a no-brainer in most shops and it should be in yours.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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