With Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), now due in the first quarter of 2008, Microsoft is deemphasizing the role that service packs play in the ongoing updating and maintenance of its operating systems. Vista SP1 will be a traditional service pack, collecting previously-issued updates into a single installation, and including few new end.

There are a number of reasons for this de-emphasis of service packs with Vista SP1. Most customers of Microsoft’s latest OS releases have pervasive Internet connections and regularly update their systems automatically via the company’s numerous online updating services, which we might collectively think of as Microsoft Update. (These services include Microsoft Update, Windows Update, Office Update, Automatic Updates, Windows Server Update Services, the Microsoft Download Center, and others.) And thanks to new updating mechanisms in Vista itself, Microsoft can drive improvements to customers more quickly than via service packs.

These improvements are delivered in a variety of ways and include such things as security updates, new versions built-in Vista applications (like Windows Mail/Windows Live Mail and Windows Photo Gallery/Windows Live Photo Gallery), new functionality (such as Windows Mobile synchronization via Windows Mobile Device Center), new and updated device drivers, and other system updates (such as the recently released Vista performance and reliability updates). Even Windows Ultimate Extras can be thought of as simply another avenue for deploying new features to Windows users. (Though of course the Extras are delivered via Windows Update.)

Improvements to Vista are driven by customer feedback and Vista’s built-in (and opt-in) Windows Error Reporting (WER) tool and the related Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP) and Online Crash Analysis (OCA) services. Thanks to these tools, Microsoft and its hardware and software partners can drive the most-needed improvements directly back into Vista much more quickly than was possible in the past. Thus, as new drivers, security fixes, application compatibility fixes, and other software updates are delivered electronically to customers, Vista gets better and better over time. Previously, customers would have to wait for monolithic service packs, released irregularly and often over long periods of time, to get these improvements.

Microsoft points out two major and recent examples of these types of fixes, which have indeed dramatically improved the Vista experience. Earlier this month, the company issued two reliability and performance updates for Windows Vista. Had the company followed its deployment schedule for previous OS releases, Vista customers wouldn’t have gotten these fixes until SP1.

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