XP SP2? Eh?
That’s XP Service Pack 2 – or the slightly more soundbite-friendly XP Reloaded.

Microsoft’s add-on to Windows XP. It’s a bundle of various new features and changes to the ubiquitous desktop operating system, with most of them aimed at improving security.

Improving security? Oh yes? How?
A lot of Microsoft’s security tactics have changed a bit, for one thing. The firewall is always on and you can’t connect to the internet until it’s initialised. The way it deals with potential security threats – malicious code dressed up as various attachments – has also changed. For example, the option highlighted will always be to refuse the attachment to stop careless clicking spreading malware.

There’s also a pop-up blocker, antivirus protection, automated and reversible patching and a central control panel for security settings called Security Center. Plus, there’s a whole host of improvements to security that you won’t even notice – that’s the way they’re meant to be.

Anything else?
Yup. The folk over at Redmond have thrown in a few other non-security extras, including some Bluetooth improvements, wireless LAN interface changes, updates for Media Center, Media Player and XP for tablet PCs.

Sounds alright but what’s all the fuss about?
It’s Microsoft’s attempt to shore up its somewhat battered reputation on security. The focus of SP2 is more on securing the desktops of home users and not dyed-in-the-wool techies – hence many of the features are aimed at changing user behaviour and making it harder for the average user to compromise security by accidentally downloading malicious code and the like.

Also, at over 300MB, it’s three times as large as its predecessor, Service Pack 1, and much broader in scope. When Microsoft released the first service pack in 2002, the majority of the world was on dial-up. Now, connectivity is moving towards broadband – a dream come true for the commercial malware writers and spammers out there.

Alright then, I’d better get myself one.
Not just yet, you won’t. Microsoft has yet to release the final, whistles-and-bells version – or, for that matter, set a release date. There are a couple of potential offerings doing the rounds, known as release candidates. You can download them from Microsoft’s website if you’re particularly keen but the software giant’s execs reckon the final version should be in the wild within two months.

It was originally scheduled to be released in June so when it’ll finally hit the world’s desktops is still pretty much anyone’s guess.

How can I get one when it does come out?
Again, no final details have been released but it’s a safe bet that the service pack will be available from the Microsoft website, through high street computer retailers and it may even be mailed to you. OEV and ISVs will also have to include it as standard with their products.

Why can’t Microsoft put it on the front of a magazine?
That’s actually against competition rules.

Will it cause me and my PC any grief when I install it?
Quite possibly. Although the final version hasn’t been approved yet, the release candidate’s zealousness is more than likely to cause problems when it encounters downloads or pop-ups that it doesn’t like the look of. There’ll also be a bit more clicking on the ‘yes, I accept downloading this isn’t going to make my PC blow up and I know it’s my own fault if it does’ buttons or tinkering with settings.

And how much will it cost?
Absolutely nothing. Both hard and digital copies will be free although there might be some postage and packing involved, depending on how you get hold of the service pack.

And what about pirated copies? Can people with knock-off versions of XP still get the update?
No. And it’s a thorny issue for Microsoft – if they don’t allow pirates access to the service pack, the security holes with XP will still remain a problem and leave armies of PC zombies at spammers’ mercy. If they do let pirate-copy users get SP2, the software behemoth runs the risk of appearing to legitimise the pirates.