Office XP Service Pack 3 problems bite users

By Brian Livingston

Microsoft released its latest mass beta test on an unsuspecting populace when it started downloading into end users’ computers on Mar. 9 its new Service Pack 3 for Windows XP.

The update package — which at least has a poetic name — has caused grumbling by PC professionals who refer to it using some less-than-flowery language.

“The Pack was not widely circulated around the developer community before release,” says Woody’s Office Watch, an e-mail newsletter that focuses on Microsoft Office tips and tricks. Referring to reports of widespread incompatibilities between SP3 and other companies’ software (and some of Microsoft’s own software), the publication added, “This is something that Microsoft could have avoided if it had wished to, but presumably either didn’t know nor care about the consequences for customers.”

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In this issue of Brian’s Buzz, I report on these problems and bring you some fixes and workarounds to mitigate the pain. I do not recommend that you install Office XP SP3 unless you examine the issues described below and carefully test the service pack on a noncritical machine that’s running your particular suite of applications.

SP3 doesn’t install if SP1 or SP2 are installed
With all of SP3’s problems, it’s ironic that one of the most common complaints is that people can’t get the dang thing to install at all. The noninstallation is iritating but saves the users from having to deal with the incompatibilities that would have resulted!

This problem is succintly described by reader Evan Katz, who couldn’t get SP3 to install on Office XP. In fact, he couldn’t even get Microsoft’s online Office Update page to recognize that his PC was lacking the patch:

  • “The very new Microsoft Office XP SP3 erroneously fails to install on many standard/vanilla computer systems, including mine (HP Pentium, 1 gig RAM, Windows XP Pro, etc.). Specifically, SP3, when attempting to install, quits/aborts and gives a false/incorrect error message:

    • ‘The expected version of the product was not found on your system’

    even though it should install right over the existing Office XP installation (specifically, on my system, Word 2003 v. 11.6113.5703 and Outlook 2003, v. 11.5608.5703).

    “Moreover, this error is repeated, in effect, on the Office Update web test, which likewise incorrectly states:

      ‘Your Office products do not need any updates’

    when, in fact, my system indeed is ready for the new SP3 update.”
Microsoft quickly acknowledged in Knowledge Base article 837826 that SP3 has this problem. The company says the false error messages occur when
  1. A machine has had Service Pack 1 or Service Pack 2 installed on Office XP from an administrative installation point, and

  2. The SP3 update is being downloaded from the Office Update site or the Microsoft Download Center.
Two possible workarounds, the article says, are to

  1. Create a new administrative installation point that contains only an RTM (released to manufacturing) version of Office XP, without any service packs, or

  2. Use the “full-file” version of Office XP SP3, rather than the smaller Office Update version, on an installation point or an individual PC.
Unfortunately, the “full-file” SP3 update is a gigantic hunk of software — almost 60 megabytes. Even with code that’s this extensive, reader Katz reports that the “full-file” version fails in his environment with the same erroneous error message. Furthermore, Katz says he never installed SP1 or SP2 from an administrative installation point, which is what Microsoft says is causing the failures.

SP3 causes dialog boxes to pop up incessently
If you do manage to get SP3 to install on Office XP, you may encounter the issue that many observers consider the worst: the lack of compatibility of the service pack with major, mission-critical applications — including Microsoft’s own.

Reader Walter Wood suffers from this problem whenever he uses Microsoft Word to compose e-mail messages for delivery by Microsoft Outlook:
  • “Recently, Office SP3 was installed on my system with Office XP. Now Outlook gives me a security warning every time I create, reply to, or forward an e-mail message. This warning states that a program is attempting to access my Address Book. I then have to click Yes or No to give it permission. (The end result is the same, regardless of what my answer is.) Generally I get this warning two times before Outlook lets me continue with the message.

    “I did find that not using Word as my e-mail editor will eliminate the warning messages. But then I do not have the extra features provided by using Word. I am attached to an Exchange Server, and I’m told there is a workaround that our IT department can use. But so far, this has not happened.”

In a Usenet discussion forum, PC user Larry Bohen illustrated how bad the problem can get:

  • “I have a similar problem that started just after I installed Office XP SP3, only the box pops up 3-4 times for every e-mail I receive (several hundred a day).”
These repeated warnings and alerts have an admirable purpose. Microsoft is trying to make it harder for worms and viruses to send out mass mailings from Outlook. But this seems to have been implemented sloppily and without adequate coordination with vendors of competing e-mail, antispam, and hot-sync applications.

The following programs, and certainly many others, need updates to work with SP3 — and many of the necessary updates weren’t available until after SP3 caused enormous headaches:

  • ActiveX applications (uninstall them, unless fixes are available)
  • NewsGator (see update page)
  • Norton AntiSpam (run LiveUpdate)
  • SpamNet (see update page)
  • IHateSpam (see update page)
  • Palm Hotsync (upgrade to version 4.1.0 or higher)
  • Word e-mail macros and Acrobat add-in for Word (rename or remove them, or don’t use Word as your e-mail editor)
  • Some Word templates, such as (remove from Word’s startup folder)
The workaround for the constant warnings described by reader Wood, above, is either to install the free Express-Soft ClickYes program — which clicks “Yes” on the alert boxes for you — or to digitally “sign” and then “trust” your e-mail macros. You can do the latter using SelfCert.exe, a Microsoft utility that is located on the CD-ROM of Office 2000 and higher (but is not installed by default). More information is available from KB article 217221 and Slipstick.

Ten days after Office XP SP3 was released, Microsoft issued details about incompatibilities such as those described above, especially as they relate to Outlook 2002, the version included in Office XP, and Outlook 2003. See KB 838871.

Mail-merging in Word spawns database warnings
Installing Office XP SP3 is reported to cause database warnings to pop up every time a mail-merge to Word from a separate database is performed. This was acknowledged by Microsoft as a known issue with Word back in September 2003, but SP3 seems to make the problem crop up more consistently.

Every time you run the mail-merge, you see a warning such as the following:

    Opening this will run the following SQL command:

    SELECT * FROM C:file_name.log

    Data from your database will be placed in the document. Do you want to continue?
You can place a line in the Registry to prevent the alert from popping up, as described by Microsoft in KB 825765.

There’s an error in the article, however. Where the description shows “11.0” in the Registry branch, the number should be “10.0”.

Don’t bother trying to uninstall SP3
In case you’ve already run Service Pack 3 and you’re so sick of it that you want to get rid of it, think again. It can’t be undone using the Add/Remove Programs control panel. You may be able to roll back to your old configuration using System Restore, however.

To send me more information about Office XP SP3, or to send me a tip on any other subject, visit You’ll receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of your choice if you send me a comment that I print.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2004-03-25: