In mid-2005, Microsoft will ship the long-awaited Microsoft Update, which will replace Windows Update as the company's manual product update service. Along with new versions of Automatic Updates, the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA), Systems Management Server (SMS), and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), Microsoft Update constitutes Microsoft's revised patch management strategy. Here's what you need to know about Microsoft Update.

Not Just for Windows
Today, the update and patch situation is inconsistent. Some systems, such as Microsoft Office, have Web-based updating tools, but others have none, relying on users to manually check Microsoft's Web site and determine whether any updates have shipped. With Microsoft Update, these patches and fixes will be centrally available.

Unlike Windows Update, which provides updates and patches for OS products only, Microsoft Update will also provide patches and updates for other Microsoft products. Microsoft Update will initially support such products as Microsoft Office, SQL Server, and Exchange Server but will eventually include all current Microsoft products. Automatic Updates users will have crucial fixes for supported Microsoft products delivered directly to their desktop.

One logical extension to Microsoft Update would be for it to support third-party software as well. Such support is especially crucial for security-related software, such as antivirus and antispyware products, although such products tend to have auto-updating mechanisms of their own. Microsoft plans to add third-party support to Microsoft Update, though it isn't committing to a timetable. Meanwhile, the company is working with its partners to determine how to best implement this much-needed functionality.

Timing
Microsoft is beta testing Microsoft Update and will provide early access to the service to attendees of this year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2005, held in April. It will continue to be a free service, although Microsoft will limit it to users who have legitimate copies of Windows and will provide crucial security patches to pirated Windows copies only through Automatic Updates.

Recommendations
You don't need to do anything to prepare for Microsoft Update per se, which will simply replace Windows Update later this year. Because large businesses and enterprises tend to perform software updating in-house, Microsoft Update is primarily a concern for small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) and represents the first huge functional improvement to Microsoft's Web-based software patching product since Windows Update was launched in 1998.