Office XP Service Pack 3 analysis

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Office XP Service Pack 3 does fix some problems and patch some security lapses but it can also be a minefield of problems either with the installation itself or various conflicts with other programs.

It’s like deja vu all over again – another Office service pack is released – on the Microsoft website you’d think that all was fine but the feedback from Office Watch readers (i.e. Microsoft customers) tells a different story.

Service Pack 3 does fix some problems and patch some security lapses but it can also be a minefield of problems either with the installation itself or various conflicts with other programs.

The hassles are made worse by simple errors on the Microsoft web site and by MS staff that have gained wider coverage.


Office XP Service Pack 3 is an update that includes all patches or service packs to date. In theory it doesn’t matter which patches or updates to Office XP you have applied – this update should patch them all to the SP3 level

Note the “in theory” and “should” warnings – more on that later.

SP3 is not only for Office XP but also for any of the individual components that make up the Office XP family – that means anything with the ‘2002’ moniker such as Word 2002, Outlook 2002, Publisher 2002 etc. It also means any of the marketed packages of Office XP; Standard, Professional, Small Business – whatever. There’s a full list on the Microsoft web site. In this issue we’ll talk about ‘Office XP’ which can mean any combination of the ‘2002’ family of Office products.

This is ONLY for the Office XP for Windows family – nothing to do with any other version of Office – not Office 2003 nor Office 2000 nor any previous version.


SP3 is a collection of minor bug fixes and security enhancements in line with Microsoft’s new found apparent zeal for all matters secure. There’s no new features and even the bug fixes are relatively minor (though certainly not considered minor by anyone who has been affected).

The summary list is at the bottom of this Knowledge Base article. Sadly the benefits of SP3 are overshadowed by the problems with the installation of the patch and compatibility problems especially Outlook.


There’s not just one version of Office XP, there’s hundreds if not thousands of permutations. There’s all the Standard, Professional etc marketing packs, then there’s individual products in all manner of combinations (Word 2002 and Excel 2002, Word and Outlook, Word, Excel and Outlook and so on) and in all the various languages.

But it gets worse, there’s some people with the original CD’s, others have Service Pack 1 or 2, yet others have one of those updates plus some mix of the small patches. You can’t even assume that the Service Packs have been uniformly applied and it’s quite possible to have some original files and updated files running on the same computer.

When applying Service Pack 3 you may be prompted to insert your original Office XP or other source CD, and this is done to retrieve a file needed in the update and it is not primarily intended as an anti-piracy measure.

Microsoft has tacitly recognized this morass by providing not one but two ways to apply SP3.

There’s the standard patch of 16MB and then there’s a more bulky 58MB version that has many more files. The idea of the bulky version is to avoid the need for the source CD prompt – though you still need to have a licensed program installed in the first place.

Sadly we’ve had too many Office Watch readers reporting that they can’t apply the SP3 patch without a request for the original CD, and even using the bulked up 58MB patch doesn’t help.

Note: You’ll see references to a 75MB ‘full file’ version of SP3. This is an error on the Microsoft web site which has been copied elsewhere. The ‘full file’ version is 58MB – we’ve downloaded it just to make sure. It’s a sign of the lack of care that Microsoft takes with these Service Packs and Updates in that that they can’t get simple facts correct.

If using either of the SP3 patches doesn’t work properly then our best advice is to uninstall Office XP entirely. Firstly, make a backup, even though your documents should not be deleted by the installation of SP3. Then reinstall Office XP from your original CD then immediately apply the SP3 patch.

The only way to remove SP3 is to uninstall Office XP entirely and then reinstall it.


Once you have SP3 installed your problems still might not be over. Microsoft has beefed up the security in Outlook 2002 to help stop worms ‘farming’ your address book. The problem is that many programs have legitimate reasons to access Outlook data and those programs are either blocked or produce warning messages with Outlook 2002 SP3.

Since the native anti-spam features in Outlook 2002 are so incredibly lame, most people have installed some type of spam detection add-on. With SP3 those tools are blocked from accessing Outlook usually with the warning that something is trying to access your email.

There’s been a scramble to update anti-spam programs once SP3 came out. As we noted in the last Office Watch, I Hate Spam and Junk-Out have released new versions and you can now add to that list Norton Anti-Spam (including Systemworks), Spam Inspector and Spamnet, though I’d expect any other program to be similarly effected.

The anti-virus features in Outlook 2002 were non-existent so most anti-virus programs will check your incoming and outgoing email. The arrival of SP3 means those programs may also need updating.

Aside: Many people don’t realize that anti-virus programs can check email directly, which explains the number of people who wrote to us with problems after SP3 was installed while swearing blind that they had no Outlook add-ins installed.

The other common type of program to access Outlook are synchronization packages to link with a PDA or phone. Most likely these programs will need to be updated too, and we’ve heard from a lot of unhappy Palm users.

We’ve also heard from Microsoft ActiveSync users with problems, which we find more mysterious. ActiveSync links Outlook with Pocket PC’s and Smartphones. While Microsoft pays insincere lip-service to compatibility with other programs, they usually make sure their own programs work after a major patch. Our best guess is that it’s an old version of ActiveSync and it is worth updating to the latest version from Microsoft.

In other words, anything that ‘touches’ Outlook’s data files is likelyto misbehave after SP3 is installed.

This can include Word add-ons because many people use Word as their email editor. A Word macro or template can collide with SP3.

Given the wide range of apps affected we suggest that you assume all such programs and add-ons are incompatible until the maker says otherwise or provides an update.

More than a week after SP3 was released, Microsoft finally admitted to compatibility problems. This belated KB article will ease Microsoft’s conscience but comes too late for users and developers. It’s also of limited use because there’s no warning or link apparent on the main pages that Office XP users will see before downloading SP3. The KB article itself talks about ‘custom solutions’ rather than in terms that most people would understand let alone mentioning specific programs or types of programs.


There are reports that there’s a problem with Word mail-merge that’s worse after SP3 is installed. This is a strange report because the problem is actually documented in a Knowledge Base article as applying to Word 2003 – not Word 2002.

Digging into this mystery it seems that a Microsoft staffer states in a forum that the problem may also apply to Word 2002 and gives an amended registry fix for the problem.

We’re following this up with Microsoft who have the resources to confirm if the KB article is wrong or their staff made a mistake in the forum. If the bug is also in Word 2002 then why isn’t it revealed in the Knowledge Base and why was it not fixed in SP3? We’ll let you know in a future issue of Office Watch.


This update has been deployed in an unprofessional manner with little or no consideration for the real needs of Microsoft’s paying customers and the developer community that Microsoft professes to support.

Office XP Service Pack 3 does nothing to improve Microsoft’s reputation generally and continues the appalling track record of Office updates that have plagued their customers for years. It’s funny to see senior executives talking about the company’s ‘big mistake’. Perhaps they’d like to spend some time fixing more down-to-earth matters that hurt their customers now.

Certainly you should NOT install SP3 without special care. Based on past experience there’s little chance that Microsoft will make any major changes to the update at this stage – indeed according to insiders the release was ‘successful’ (!) which only proves that selective hearing is still rampant in Redmond.

You can hold off applying SP3 until a suitable time – such as when you are reinstalling software or operating system. Don’t do it when you have an important job looming – best to assume that you may be without full functionality for a day or two.

Check all your add-ons and ensure you have updates or confirmation from the maker that it is SP3 compatible.

Have your Office XP installation CD ready in case it’s needed by the SP3 patch or, at worst, you may have to uninstall Office XP and reinstall from scratch to get rid of SP3.

SP3 does have some useful if not necessary security updates but you have to balance that need against the hassles of installing SP3 and the compatibility problems that can arise.


Here’s some things you’ll need to get BEFORE you apply SP3.

Office XP Multilingual Pack – If you use the multilingual pack you need to apply this update as well as the SP3 update itself.

ActiveSync – As mentioned above, it seems prudent to update to the latest version of ActiveSync to avoid any surprises.

Updates for any Outlook enabled program you use – Anti-spam, anti-virus, synchronization or more. Get the update or ensure your current version is certified to work with Service Pack 3.


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