Sneaky service packs

Windows users are steaming over the terms in Microsoft's new Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000, which was released on August 1, and Service Pack 1 for XP, which is in beta but will probably ship this month.

The licences of these updates say, "You acknowledge and agree that Microsoft may automatically check the version of the OS Product and/or its components that you are utilising and may provide upgrades or fixes to the OS Product that will be automatically downloaded to your computer."

In an interview, Windows product manager Charmaine Gravning said these terms are similar to "language in the EULA [end-user licence agreement] for Windows XP", but she confirmed that they're new for Windows 2000.

She pointed to a recent Microsoft white paper documenting 11 components of XP that automatically download material from the Internet.

For example, XP's Media Player pulls down upgrades and then alerts you. If you have administrative privileges, you can click OK to install a newer player version. However, the app also downloads and installs newfound media codecs without any notice, if you've ever clicked the "always trust Microsoft" box while browsing the Web.

To disable such downloading, see the white paper at http://www.microsoft.com/WindowsXP/pro/techinfo/administration/manageautoupdate.

One thing you can't get around, however - and a big reason for the latest fears - is Microsoft's DRM (digital rights management) scheme. This built-in XP feature silently downloads and installs "revocation lists". These lists prevent "revoked" programs from playing DRM-encoded content.

The idea of giving any outside company the ability to remotely turn off something that previously worked on your computer strikes many as lunacy.

Aside from fair-use issues, users fear silent upgrades because Microsoft has pumped out many buggy patches that themselves needed patching. Just this June, Microsoft shipped the Nimda worm in its Korean edition of Visual Studio .Net.

Bruce Kratofil, my Windows 2000 Secrets co-author, describes patch pitfalls and ways to "take back XP" at http://www.bjkresearch.com/takeback.htm. He notes that Service Pack 3 conflicts with more than a dozen Windows 2000 hotfixes Microsoft sent out starting on July 23. (Go to http://search.microsoft.com, then search on Q326797.)Kratofil is not alone. "The new Microsoft Win2K Service Pack 3 is a loser!" writes reader Christopher Shock. "It's ruined every machine I've installed it on so far (five), including our entire Web development staff and development server."

Fortunately, Shock recovered from backups, but he says Microsoft's user-discussion forums have been plastered with complaints from disgruntled users.

I'd like to hear your experiences. Readers whose comments I print will receive gift certificates for a free book, CD, or DVD of their choice.

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