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XP SP2 is nearly ready, but are you ready for it?

Judging by the widespread speculation this week about precisely when Microsoft will release Windows XP Service Pack 2, you'd think people were standing at the ready to click the "download now" button. That's just not the case.

While most of Microsoft's service packs are generally interpreted as a sign that a piece of software has most of the bugs worked out, XP SP2 is a different animal.

This release is billed as a huge improvement over the current desktop version of Windows, because it addresses some of the key security issues that have plagued the operating system over the past couple of years. But it's also gaining a reputation for its unprecedented potential to break tons of applications -- Microsoft and non-Microsoft apps alike.

Case in point: This week, Redmond acknowledged that SP2 will cause problems with the company's customer relationship management suite, and it suggested some workarounds. SP2 beta testers contacted by reported similar problems with some of their applications.

Press vendors about support plans

Michael Cherry, a lead analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, offered this solid piece of advice: "[IT administrators] should check the

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vendor of their software to see what their support plans are for XP SP2."

The squeaky wheel gets the patch, or something like that.

Interestingly, IT professionals appear to be taking all this in stride. Many say they understand that this kind of stuff happens with service packs -- but they're not willing to subject their entire organization to such a taxing effort until they feel the benefits outweigh the problems.

As for the time frame for the release of SP2, which will be available on Microsoft's download site, the stories carried this week by the technology media have been so conflicting, they're almost comical: It's ready now. It'll be ready next week. It won't be ready until September or October.

Microsoft's Australian business unit didn't help matters by issuing a press release this week saying SP2 is ready now, a statement that the home office had to retract.

The closest we're going to get on this one is what Microsoft gave two major news wire services on Wednesday: "imminently" (Reuters) and "in the coming days" (The Associated Press). Whatever the case, Redmond is bracing for an onslaught of downloads. Rich Kaplan, corporate vice president of Microsoft's security business and technology unit, expects 100 million people will get their version of SP2 from the Windows Update site.

Elsewhere in the news …

Microsoft was conspicuous in its absence at this week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. In the past, Microsoft hasn't been afraid to show its corporate face at the open source community's premier event. In fact, you may recall that Martin "Get the Facts" Taylor was Microsoft's very prominent spokesman at the event last year.

There was no word from Microsoft about why it chose to skip LinuxWorld this year.

Another recent IT trade show in San Francisco offered a gloomy glimpse at how hard it is for the industry to keep up with the increasing sophistication of spammers. One example, cited by Symantec Corp.'s William Plante at the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy conference, is the growing use of the HTTPS protocol as a way to elude identification. "We don't have any technology yet that can trace HTTPS URLs," Plante admitted.

And despite widespread skepticism about the effectiveness of antispam laws, such as the Can Spam Act, the Federal Communications Commission is forging ahead with new rules. On Wednesday, the agency said it will now require marketers to seek the permission of wireless device users before sending them e-mails.

That's dandy, but most reputable online marketers are already playing by the rules. It's the spammers who try to hide their identities that are the biggest culprits. (See William Plante's lament two paragraphs before this one.)

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