The release of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP - used to bat away all Microsoft's security issues for the past year - has been delayed and will now, at best, be released in July, the company has announced. The update doesn't yet meet Microsoft standards, a spokesman said.

As recently as last week, Microsoft said SP2 was on schedule for release in the first half of the year. The company has now decided to delay the update to "some time in the third quarter" because testing has not been completed and the company continues to make changes to the software based on input from testers, it said. "Ultimately the final release will ship when SP2 meets the quality standards customers demand," a spokesman said.

A beta of SP2 was released in December, followed by Release Candidate 1 in March. A Release Candidate 2 is still scheduled to be released in May, the spokesman said. But SP2 is more than bug fixes and updates. It will make significant changes to the operating system software in order to improve security - something that has become a huge issue for Microsoft in the past few years.

As one security scare after another has appeared, Microsoft has promised to protect the network, memory, e-mail and Internet browsing.

All these changes prompted the company to warn in March that once installed SP2 may conflict with dozens of third-party programs. Developers should test their applications with SP2 because the company has made something of a trade-off, it warned, focusing on security improvements at the expense of backward-compatibility.

The update has also delayed the development of Longhorn - the next release of Windows, expected in 2006 - after developers were pulled off working on it to concentrate on SP2. As a result the first Longhorn beta was pushed back from mid-2004 until early 2005. And last month, Microsoft revealed that it was pulling planned features out of the OS in order to reach this release date.

None of which is making anyone happy. Except Novell, Red Hat, IBM, SuSE, Apple, Sun...