Why IE 7.0 must rely on XP SP2

I’ve seen a lot of press coverage over the last week or so about Microsoft’s plans for Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0. One of the major gripes seems to be that it will require Windows XP service pack 2 (SP2).

So what’s wrong with that?

One of the main reasons that people are moving to other browsers (e.g. Firefox) is that IE is perceived as insecure. SP2 is a major security update for the Windows XP desktop operating system. Why provide a new (more secure) browser product to people who do not use the latest security patches on their operating system?

SP2 has been publicly available since August 2004 (6 months ago). The temporary blocking mechanism to hold back automatic SP2 deployment from Windows Update is scheduled to expire on April 12 2005. There is no point in IT Managers burying their heads in the sand and ignoring SP2 any longer. I will concede that Microsoft should have shipped v4.0 of the Application Compatibility Toolkit alongside SP2 (after all, application compatibility is probably the largest barrier to SP2 deployment) but it amazes me that so few organisations have made the move to SP2 after all this time.

For those who are not even using Windows XP, whilst the extra functionality in IE 7.0 may be useful, Microsoft is a product and technology business and it needs to maintain its licensing revenues through getting people to adopt the latest technologies (especially whilst strategic products are being delayed by major security rewrites).

If an older platform is seen “good enough” then fine; but “good enough” shouldn’t just be about functionality – it needs to consider the whole picture – including security. It may be that the risk assessment considers remaining on a legacy (possibly unsupported) platform is more favourable than the risk (and cost) of upgrading. That’s fine too – as long as that risk is acceptable to the business.

My recommendation? Organisations who are using Windows XP should fully test their applications and carry out a controlled upgrade to SP2 as soon as possible. Those who continue to use older operating systems (especially Windows 9x, ME, and NT) should urgently consider upgrading. Then keep patch levels up-to-date, for example, by using Microsoft Software Update Services (SUS) and the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA). IT users can’t continue to complain about the security of the Microsoft platform if they won’t deploy the latest (or even recent) patches.

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