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Windows XP Service Pack 3 Error

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Last week I stumbled upon this Gmail Blog post mentioning that IE6 (Internet Explorer version 6) now supports some of the GUI enhancements offered by Gmail. But in order to exploit these enhancements, one had to apply a critical update to IE6 from Microsoft. An interesting point cited by this post was that Google and Microsoft developers had worked together to address the issue. I didn't think these guys even talked to each other, let alone cooperate to release an update for the IE6 browser.

I had always wondered why Gmail appeared less fancy in IE6 than in other browser like IE7 or Firefox, and this post finally resolved that mystery. Now I'm not the type to jump on a patch or a service pack as soon as Microsoft releases them. I still use IE6 on Windows XP at work and at home alongside Firefox 3, and I have no desire to upgrade to Windows Vista or IE7. The prospect of better Gmail experience however was tempting enough for me to pay a visit to the Windows Update site and apply the IE6 patch.

I have automatic updates disabled on my machine and apparently I was missing a lot of them as I was suddenly greeted with a long list of security and critical patches once I got the process rolling. Among the list were two notable items, IE7 and Windows XP Service Pack 3. I promptly opted out of IE7, but decided to give SP3 a green light. Little did I know that I'd be wasting the next 3 hours of my life over this inane service pack.

The process started our smooth enough. a number of patches were applied, followed by the obligatory reboot. Then came the SP3 update from hell. The sluggish process would run almost to the end at which time an error dialog box would pop up with a simple message: "Service Pack 3 setup error. Access is denied." Huh? Access to what is denied? Acknowledging the message would commence a rollback process as sluggish as the installation itself, followed by an automatic reboot.

Not acceding defeat, I ran a Web search on the error and found this KB article from Microsoft Support. Apparently I wasn't the first person having this issue. Following the advice of the article, I exited my antivirus program (AVG) and tried once more, but again I got the same error. Perhaps Windows Defender was the culprit, but stopping that process didn't help either. After a few more tries shutting down various programs like Diskeeper and Symantec's Backup agent, I was still getting nowhere. Finally I fired up Process Explorer and slaughtered every process in sight until only the basic ones remained. And yet, SP3 defiantly refused to be installed. It was the same old snail-pace install-error-rollback-reboot that I was getting well acquainted with.

There comes a time when a person must cut his losses and move on and my time was then. Most likely the trouble was a registry permission issue which is also mentioned in the KB article and a solution is offered. But by then my patience had already run out and by that final reboot I decided that SP2 was good enough for me.

In the end it turns out that SP3 doesn't really offer anything substantial over SP2. A few security fixes and optimizations but nothing so crucial that’s worth this kind of hassle. Happily, the IE6 update had been applied (possibly among the first set of patches) and that wiped away any modicum of temptation I might have had to give SP3 one more shot. The computer is working as before (even after the multiple upgrade onslaught), Gmail enhancements now appear fine on IE6, and my only regret is not stopping after the first SP3 update attempt went awry. Sorry SP3, we just weren't meant to be together.


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