Beta-testing for the first service pack update to Microsoft's Windows XP will begin within weeks, with release expected this summer.

The free update will include a selection of bug, security and compatibility fixes — many of which are already available as separate downloads.

But the move will come as a relief to IT workers who are rolling out XP in offices — having all the patches and fixes in one place will save time and hassle.

Release of this service pack could also prompt a surge in adoption of Windows XP by some companies that traditionally wait for this milestone before upgrading to a new operating system.

Longtime Microsoft critics may welcome one feature new to Windows XP, meant to comply with the November 2001 antitrust settlement agreement between Microsoft and the Justice Department.

Buried in the Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs module, the new 'Set Program Access and Defaults’ settings allow both end users and system vendors to specify which programs handle key tasks, including web browsing, email, instant messaging, media playback and Java interpreting.

In addition to selecting the default application, the new feature can also hide installed programs — including Microsoft programs — from users. For the first time since Windows 95 (which shipped with only a rudimentary media player), PC vendors armed with the updated version of XP will be free to ship systems that use browsers, media players and other tools from Microsoft competitors such as Netscape and Opera instead of Microsoft's own utilities.

Desktop PCs running Windows XP will outnumber those running Windows 98 by late 2003, says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president with the market-research firm IDC. The ambitious update had a slow start compared with that of its predecessor.

"The release of SP1 for Windows XP is likely to cause companies in the pilot-project phase of software adoption to feel comfortable enough to move forward with their adoption plans," Kusnetzky says.

However, there's little in this service pack for current Windows XP users to get excited about, especially if they've religiously (or automatically) downloaded updates through Microsoft's Windows Update website. Aside from the fixes, the service pack update looks forward; it adds support for several upcoming PC designs — such as the Tablet PC — as well as Microsoft's forthcoming .Net web services.