With the final major service pack for Windows XP being released, Microsoft is hoping people will start focusing on Vista, but Dell, Asus and others still see a large market for XP.
Windows XP Service Pack 3 release manager Chris Keroack quietly announced on its TechNet forums on Monday afternoon (US time) that SP3 for Windows XP had been released to manufacturing, and was being distributed to PC builders and enterprise users.
Home users will have to wait a little longer. Microsoft will begin updating documentation relating to SP3 on its site from April 29, but the code itself won't be launched via Windows Update until "early summer", Keroack said (which we'll guess means June). Release dates for the embedded and stripped-down "fundamentals" versions of XP haven't been announced.
Unlike XP's previous service pack, the infamous SP2, which added major new features to the OS and broke many a corporate desktop image in the process, SP3 doesn't introduce a lot visible changes. The bulk of the code simply bundles together major patches and fixes added to XP since SP2 was released back in August 2004.
New features include support for Windows Server 2008's Network Access Protection feature, better black hole router detection and more descriptive text in some security dialog boxes. Surprisingly, the service pack doesn't include Internet Explorer 7, though XP users can download this separately.
The low-key and drawn-out nature of the announcement contrasts sharply with the energy put into promoting the availability of the first service pack for Vista, also released this month. It is widely assumed that SP3 will be the last major service pack for XP, with any future security patches rolled out individually rather than bundled up.
However, the fly in the ointment for that strategy is the difficulty which Microsoft has experienced in convincing people that Vista is actually a better choice than XP. The company had originally planned to stop manufacturers releasing PCs with XP on them at the end of 2007, but was forced to extend the deadline to June 2008 when it became clear that many people found Vista too slow, too buggy and generally not worth the hassle.
SP1 is supposed to solve some of those problems, but despite fixing some issues (such as file transfer speeds) XP is remaining stubbornly persistent. Microsoft has already said that it will continue selling Windows XP Home for use on what it awkwardly calls ULCPCs (ultra-low-cost personal computers) until at least mid-2010, a move designed to stave off competition from leaner Linux-based systems such as the Asus Eee PC. (The Eee PC itself is available with XP installed.)
Some manufacturers also see a longer lifespan for XP in other markets. At the launch of its new Vostro small business notebooks last week, Dell small business marketing manager Jay Turner said that while Vista "was the main game" for Dell, there was still a significant demand for XP from small business customers, and that the new models would be available with XP installed.
While this technically requires purchasing a Vista Business licence and then 'downgrading' it to XP, machines would ship from the factory with XP installed and recovery media for both OSes, Turner said. He added that Dell expected those sales to continue beyond June.