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Microsoft on Monday afternoon released the much-anticipated second release candidate of Windows XP Service Pack 2. But the Redmond, Wash., software firm was mum about the timing of its final release.

At the same time, a Microsoft Corp. spokesman told eWEEK that he was unable to give a specific date for the final release of SP2 as this “will depend on the customer feedback received during the continued testing.”

Until Monday, Microsoft officials had held fast to the company’s claim from the spring that the final XP SP2 release would ship in late July. They have also said they are not sure whether they will issue an RC3 beta, which could push the final release date beyond July.

The spokesman reiterated that line Monday, saying it was “again, too soon to say” if there would be a need for a third release candidate.

Microsoft has also pushed back the release of RC2 by several weeks. Earlier this year, the company said to expect it in May.

The Windows enthusiast site reported at the end of May that Microsoft discovered a last-minute bug in the NX (no execute) support that will be part of SP2, and consequently decided to delay the service pack. Microsoft would not comment on NeoWin’s report.

Some testers have also speculated that Microsoft unearthed new application-compatibility problems that caused it to delay the RC2 release, but this could not be confirmed.

But the spokesman did say that today’s release of RC2 indicates that “Windows XP SP2 is entering its final testing stages on its way toward a final release this summer.”

According to insiders familiar with the pack, RC2 is Build No. 2149 and is currently available only to beta testers registered with Microsoft’s Windows Beta site. Microsoft is expected to offer RC2 to an open pool of technical testers shortly. When available for wider distribution, the preview code will be offered for download here.

Although Microsoft has deemed Windows XP SP2 a service pack, the product is a new version of Windows that will contain a number of features and fixes. With SP2, Microsoft is turning on its built-in Windows Firewall by default, adding new browser and e-mail safeguards and enhancing XP’s memory-protection features, company officials have said.

The spokesman on Monday said SP2 RC2 includes advanced security technologies and is “another key milestone in the development of SP2 and is intended to give software and hardware developers and IT professionals the opportunity to continue testing in preparation for deployment and to allow Microsoft to collect additional customer feedback.”

A listing of features in Windows XP Service Pack 2 Release Candidate 2 is available on Microsoft’s press resources site. Click here to read more.

So far, hundreds of thousands of developers and customers have tested beta and release candidate versions of Windows XP SP2. Microsoft strongly encourages developers and corporate IT customers to continue their testing by downloading Windows XP SP2 RC2, the spokesman said.

The updates and enhancements in Windows XP SP2 focus on three main areas of security, the spokesman said. First will be stronger security settings, with Windows XP SP2 establishing stronger default security settings. The update also will provide new features and tools designed to help customers better defend their systems and information from hackers, viruses and other security threats.

The second area of focus is increased manageability and control, he said, with SP2 making it easier to configure and manage security resources, as well as providing more accessible and intuitive security tools. The update also will introduce the new Windows Security Center control panel.

The third focus area is around improved and more secure experiences. The latest software includes updates for key drivers, support for new technologies and security updates for key features.

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