What's in a service pack?

Microsoft announced yesterday that the first service pack for its Windows Vista operating system won't be available until the first quarter of 2008.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  August 30, 2007

Microsoft announced yesterday that the first service pack for its Windows Vista operating system won't be available until the first quarter of 2008. At just about one year from the main consumer launch of the OS to the release of the first service pack, this wouldn't be too far off the usual cycle of product improvement, but it may be too long a gap for Vista.

The service pack is slated to go through at least two lots of beta testing first, and while Microsoft's dedication to getting it right is a good thing, it does make you wonder - how long can it take to compile a service pack?

It could be said that the idea of a service pack is somewhat redundant, given the rolling updates that most Windows users will be familiar with by now. The constant bombardment with ‘Updates are now available for your computer!' messages can get quite annoying, but it's nice to know that the Redmond software mechanics are kept busy tinkering away under the hood.

To be fair to Microsoft, they do a lot more work on improving products than many might realize - Microsoft has a number of automated feedback systems that monitor usage and errors, and this data is used even in development of new products. The vendor also says that it works closely with OEMs and so on to update its software all the time. But with all these processes in place to constantly update Vista, it does seem that getting SP1 out the door is going to take too long.

For Middle East users, the service pack is much more important than in other more connected regions. All of the updates that are slated for SP1 at the moment add up to more than 7GB. Even in those regions where broadband is widely available, that's a pretty big download to swallow in one go. For countries like Saudi, with internet penetration rates not even touching the 20% mark, a ‘hard' copy of the service pack is vital. Sure, a PC that's not connected to the internet doesn't need the same security as one that's online, but that doesn't mean that users don't need the other updates.

My suspicion is that by not releasing SP1 until next year, Microsoft will dent consumer confidence in Vista, and possibly hit sales over the holiday period. Service Packs are seen as almost a product release in themselves now, and the launch of a service pack has definitely become part of the marketing process - but this process has created end users who are a lot more software aware than they were a few years ago. The world's blogs are awash with comments along the lines of ‘I'm not buying Vista until the first update' and a quick look in any computer retail store will show that there are still plenty of systems, even high end ones, shipping with Windows XP installed instead of Vista. Without a well publicized service pack, end users are likely to continue focusing on anecdotal evidence about performance issues, and stay away from the OS. Vista's first Christmas just won't be complete without Service Pack 1.

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