More than four years after it was filed, the government's antitrust case against Microsoft (MSFT ) is finally about to bear fruit for consumers. Although the effort by nine states to toughen the deal agreed to by Microsoft and the Justice Dept. drags on, the software maker has decided to honor part of the original agreement by modifying Windows XP with an update called Service Pack 1. SP1, now in final testing, is scheduled to be released as a free update later this summer.
SP1 makes it easier for consumers, and, more important, computer makers to change the configuration of Windows XP and add or subtract applications. It also includes a collection of bug fixes, many based on the error reports sent to Microsoft when a program crashes in XP. And it incorporates all the improvements in security that Microsoft has issued since XP was released last fall.
This update is a sign that Microsoft may finally be growing up. Four years ago, the company responded to a judge's order that it offer a version of Windows without Internet Explorer by saying such a move would keep Windows from working at all. But the new package goes beyond grudging compliance with the letter of the agreement, and actually acknowledges the spirit.
The most significant change for consumers is in the control panel used to add or remove programs. First, you can use the Add/Remove Windows Components section to get rid of features that have been mandatory parts of Windows, including Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger, and Outlook Express. Removing them does not just eliminate the icons or other means of access, as required by the proposed agreement, but actually removes the features themselves. However, since virtually all PCs are set up with a copy of the compressed Windows installation files on the hard drive, the same control panel can be used to reinstall these features.
A new feature, called "set program access and defaults," offers another approach. It controls what will be the default applications--and what appears on the Start menu--for five classes of what the agreement calls "middleware." The middleware includes the Web browser, e-mail, instant messaging, media player, and Java. (The service pack restores built-in support for Java, which Microsoft petulantly stripped from the original release of XP.) The "Microsoft" button chooses Internet Explorer and other standard Windows programs. The "non-Microsoft" choice selects such programs as a Netscape browser and RealNetworks' RealPlayer, if installed. The "custom" option lets you choose your default for each class of programs. Not many people are likely to delete applications such as Internet Explorer, since they are useful and disk space is rarely an issue these days. But gaining an easy way to choose the default program for viewing Web pages or listing MP3 music is a plus.
These changes are far more important to computer makers and, accordingly, to buyers of new computers. Manufacturers gain considerable flexibility in how computers are set up and what customers will see when they first turn them on. I doubt that any computer maker will eliminate Internet Explorer, or even replace it as the default, because it is the browser standard. But a manufacturer might well substitute RealPlayer for Windows Media Player, especially if Real Networks provides financial incentives.
Should you install SP1? For one thing, it's huge. While the final product is likely to be a bit smaller than the 117-megabyte test version I used, most people will probably choose to order a CD (for a "nominal fee") rather than download it. More seriously, the installation is almost as complex as an operating system upgrade, and things can and will go wrong. One of my laptops refused to boot after I installed the test version. On the other hand, many of the bug fixes that don't involve security will be available only with the service pack. Since these fixes almost always include new bugs, it would probably be wise to wait a few weeks after SP1 comes out to see what problems surface before taking the plunge.