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Microsoft Corp. officials on Monday said that the company plans to release its long-awaited Service Pack 2 for Windows XP in August. Until today, the company had said only that the update would be available this summer.

Microsoft last month released a second release candidate of the service pack, an unusual move for an interim release such as SP2. However, with the number and magnitude of the changes that the update makes, company officials said they wanted to give customers as much time as possible to identify problems and provide feedback. The original schedule called for SP2 to be released last year, but the date was pushed back in August 2003.

SP2 is almost entirely a security update for the company’s most recent desktop operating system. The biggest change is that the Windows Firewall will now be turned on by default. Formerly known as the Internet Connection Firewall, the Windows Firewall will be set in a mode called On With No Exceptions. This means that all inbound Internet traffic will be denied until the user changes the setting.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer’s Weblog.

SP2 also includes changes that enable Outlook Express, Internet Explorer and Windows Messenger to identify and isolate malicious file attachments as they are being opened. Internet Explorer will see some changes in SP2 as well, including a modification that is designed to prevent some script-based attacks that can mask malicious activity on the user’s machine.

Microsoft is not considering making any major changes to the content of SP2 between now and its August release date, said Gytis Barzdukas, director of product management in the Security Business and Technology Unit at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.

The company is making some changes to the way IE operates. For one, the browser will include an integrated pop-up blocker, turned on by default; other popular browsers such as Mozilla have included this functionality for some time. Microsoft is also adding a function to IE that monitors downloads and can warn users about unsafe content.

Some IT managers are frustrated by the barrage of security problems surrounding Internet Explorer and are looking for alternatives. Click here for the full story.

Customers also will see a new Windows Security Center once they install SP2. This is an all-in-one view of the security settings in the operating system, telling users whether their firewall, anti-virus software and other security protections are enabled.

Microsoft officials said they have had more than 800,000 downloads of the two SP2 beta offerings.

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