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The Windows rumor mill

The phantom OS, and other urban legends. Since we last covered the topic of rumors in the world of Windows several such urban myths have been debunked while others have risen to take their place. For this edition of Windows Advisor, I posted questions to several newsgroups and mailing lists asking for any and all rumors that the users had heard about Microsoft and Windows XP.

As with last year, the results were overwhelming. It seems that everyone has heard a conspiracy theory about what Microsoft is up to and what they plan to do next, but no one is sure what’s true and what isn’t. This time around, we’ll try to set a few more of those rumors straight and maybe even confirm one or two of them in the process.

Why should i buy Windows XP?

“I’ve heard that Microsoft is about to release another operating system,” asks Jason Fox, a network consultant in Dallas. “If that’s true, why should I bother buying Windows XP?”

Microsoft does indeed plan to release another new OS–just not anytime soon. The next major release, code-named Longhorn, won’t be ready for at least another two years. Originally conceived as an update to XP, Longhorn will now include a number of new features, including a revised task-based user interface, an SQL 2003-based file system, and a revised Start panel.

Already, however, Microsoft has released a few new versions of Windows XP with slight alterations. These won’t be available separately but will be released on new machines specifically designed for the new versions. The first is Windows XP Media Center, which shipped in September 2002. Basically, it’s a new branch of Windows XP Professional with a few new applications built in, including a remote-control function for managing audio and video, and a personal video recording application. The OS will come pre-installed on new machines geared toward high-tech audio and video consumers.

The second new version of Windows XP is the Tablet PC Edition, which shipped in November 2002. As the title implies, this version of XP is exclusive to Tablet PCs, much as Windows CE was exclusive to Palm-type computers.

If you’ve put off upgrading to Windows XP because you’re afraid that the next Microsoft OS is just around the corner, quit stalling. Longhorn probably won’t debut until late 2004 (if then) and the periodic service packs (such as the recently released SP1) that Microsoft releases to update Windows are always free for the downloading, leaving you no reason to wait it out until the next revision.

Crashing Windows

“I’d like to upgrade my Windows XP Pro to the new service pack,” writes Jennifer Solomon, an artist in Chicago. “But I’ve heard that there’s a 50 percent chance it will crash Windows and wipe out my hard drive.” While I managed to install Service Pack 1 without even the smallest of glitches, not everyone has been quite so lucky. According to some estimates, there’s about a 10 percent chance that installation of SP1 will negatively affect your OS. But even if that unverified figure is true, your hard drive shouldn’t be affected, and all of your programs and data should still be safe.

Some of the chief complaints after installation of SP1 include PCs that run much slower than they did before the upgrade, machines that continuously reboot, and applications that won’t start or crash repeatedly.

Microsoft reps, however, claim that the company has not seen an increase in the number of users reporting problems, and that, for the majority of consumers, Win XP SP1 fixes many more bugs than it creates. “Windows XP Service Pack 1 is a well-tested release that corrects hundreds of bugs, including security-related ones. We encourage customers to install it at the earliest opportunity to ensure that their systems are fully secure,” reads a recent statement on Microsoft’s Web site.

So what can you do if you’re one of the unlucky ones whose installation of SP1 fries Windows XP? First and foremost, be prepared. When SP1 offers to save all your files in the event that you want to ditch the installation later, choose the affirmative. You should also save a “restore point,” a Windows XP function that basically takes a snapshot of the current state of your drive(s) and settings. Then if something goes wrong, you’ll have a couple of different avenues to try to correct the situation.

You should also decide whether or not you really need SP1 in the first place. SP1 does fix several problems with the initial release and plugs at least one major security hole, but if your version of XP is running just fine you might decide to avoid the upgrade altogether and wait for the next service pack. As long as you make an informed choice, you should be fine.

Secret files ready to take over the world

“I’ve heard that there are secret files on the Windows XP CD-ROM,” worries Alice Russell, of Burlington, Iowa, “that will install themselves and monitor your system and report back to Microsoft. Is this true?”

I have no clue how this one got started, but no, there are no secret Microsoft files on the Windows XP CD-ROM getting ready to take over the world. There are, however, several Microsoft and third-party extras located in both the Valueadd and support folders of the retail installation disc. (For whatever reason, in many cases, the CD-ROMs bundled with retail computers often don’t contain the Valueadd folder.)

So, if not designed to take over the world, why do these folders exist, and why weren’t the files copied to your hard drive with the initial Windows XP installation? Simply put, the files aren’t in the least bit necessary to install, run, and use Windows XP. Certain users, however, might find them useful, which is why they’re included on the discs. (While not exactly keeping it a secret, Microsoft hasn’t gone out of its way to advertise the existence of the folders.)

Both the Home and Professional editions of the CD-ROM contain:

— The Citrix ICA client for connection to Citrix terminal servers;

— TTPS for checking packet data on an IP network;

— The Distributed Management Task Force’s Common Information Model v2.5 for computer management;

— The networking protocol NetBEUI, which is used to connect to older networks;

— Several different fonts; and

— A backup and restore system in the Valueadd folder.

Additionally, the Windows XP Pro Valueadd folder contains the Windows NT 4.0 Internet Authentication Service (used for authenticating domain users) and a phone book administrator program. The Support folder on XP Pro also contains a plethora of support tools for XP Pro and Windows XP 64-bit Edition, all uninstalled on your PC. A couple (DCDiag.exe, and repadmin.exe) are documented but most are not, leaving a lot of guesswork on how to use these hidden gems. (Hint: Search for them on Microsoft’s site so you can at least get some idea of what they are and what to do with them.)

Like most rumors, this one has a little bit of truth mixed together with a whole lot of fantasy. A good rule of thumb when encountering rumors is that if it sounds far-fetched, it probably is. Except, of course, for the rumor that says Microsoft has been hiding subliminal suggestions into every third copy of Office XP in order to “coerce” users into buying more of their products. That one is entirely, 100 percent true. And if you believe that, I’ve got some WorldCom stock that I’d like to sell you.

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