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Microsoft is bracing for the next phase of its rollout of its Windows XP SP2 (Service Pack 2), which kicks off Wednesday.

Microsoft is set to begin pushing the service pack to Windows XP Professional users tomorrow via Windows Update/Automatic Update. A week ago, Microsoft began delivering SP2 to Windows XP Home users via its Windows Update/Automatic Update patching facility. Microsoft pushed back its Automatic Update rollout dates in order to allow customers who weren’t ready for SP2 to block the update.

Users can block the update in several ways, two of which involve new, downloadable tools from Microsoft. A week ago, it posted a tool that temporarily blocks SP2 from being delivered via Automatic Update. More recently, the company also posted to its TechNet Web site for IT professionals Visual Basic scripts that will block SP2 for users who aren’t yet ready for it.

The new scripts, developed by a handful of Microsoft developers known as “The Scripting Guys,” can block SP2 from downloading to an individual computer or to multiple machines. The scripts are “officially unsupported,” however, according to a description of them on Microsoft’s site.

Microsoft also posted for download on Monday night an “Application Compatibility Testing and Mitigation Guide for Windows XP Service Pack 2.” The guide summarizes some of the steps customers can take to alleviate the myriad compatibility problems that users have begun encountering when attempting to apply SP2.

“Because system security becomes more restrictive upon initial installation, SP2 may also expose application-compatibility issues,” Microsoft notes on the download site for the SP2 compatibility guide. “It is important that an investigation into possible application-compatibility issues takes place prior to full deployment.”

Indeed, a number of SP2 downloaders have been plagued by application incompatibilities between SP2 and software from both Microsoft and third-party vendors. Microsoft last week posted a list of nearly 50 applications that “seem to stop working” once SP2 is applied, and another set of about 200 applications that “behave differently” upon application of the service pack.

Microsoft has posted to its Knowledge Base myriad how-to articles designed to help users fix these incompatibilities.

More Windows XP SP2 resources are on the way, as well.

According to the NeoWin Windows enthusiast site, Microsoft also is set to launch on Wednesday its official Windows XP Service Pack 2 Web site, geared to individual SP2 users. Users who are having trouble downloading the nearly 300 MB service pack due to slow network connections are expected to be able to order CD versions of SP2 from this site.

A Microsoft spokesman said Microsoft is on track to go live with the new SP2 site sometime in late August. He would not confirm that the site will go live Wednesday, however.

Academic institutions already can order the CD version of SP2 from the Microsoft Education site. Alongside the SP2 CDs, Microsoft is providing educational institutions with CDs bearing a 90-day-free copy of McAfee VirusScan and McAfee Personal Firewall Plus. Microsoft is advising universities to distribute the CDs to students before they attempt to connect to campus networks.

“We heard from the higher-education community a while ago about their [SP2] downloading concerns,” a Microsoft spokesman acknowledged, “ranging from system capacity, to unprotected machines logging on, to insufficient time for [application] testing.” The bottom line: “They mostly wanted the ability to control the distribution of [SP2],” the spokesman said.

Microsoft also is set to roll out an SP2 PSDK (platform software development kit) sometime soon that is designed to provide developers with supplementary SP2 information, such as Windows API documentation, samples, tools, headers and libraries.

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