Microsoft launches anti-spyware beta

Company unveils first version of a spyware-killing application based on technology from recently acquired Giant Software. Images: Microsoft's anti-spyware beta

Microsoft on Thursday introduced a beta version of its Windows AntiSpyware application.

The product is designed to help protect users of Windows products from spyware--software that's secretly installed on people's computers for a variety of purposes, such as bombarding them with pop-up ads and tracking their Internet usage. The company claims the anti-spyware tools will help people keep their computers running faster and with fewer Web-related glitches.

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The beta, which is available for download on the company's Web site, was built using technology Microsoft gained through its December acquisition of Giant Software, which specialized in spyware-fighting tools. Microsoft said that in addition to loading the software with the capability to combat many known strains of spyware, the company will continue to research emerging forms of spyware and to offer automatic updates to the product to fight new threats.

Microsoft executives said the company has not decided yet whether the anti-spyware package will launch as a stand-alone item or as part of one of its Windows products. They also indicated that there is no set time frame for the package's official release.

Amy Carroll, director of product management for Microsoft's Security, Business and Technology unit, said the company has been focused on getting the beta out to users as quickly as possible, to begin helping in the fight against the spyware epidemic. She said the beta was created in 21 days after the Giant acquisition.

"Our goal is to focus on getting customers protected from the bad guys," Carroll said. "People are reporting spyware-related issues to Microsoft more than ever, and we've seen that over one-third of the people reporting crashes in our applications are actually dealing with spyware problems."

Carroll said that Microsoft is also encountering an increasing amount of spyware that goes beyond creating simple nuisances such as pop-ups. These pose the threat of enabling more serious crimes, such as identity theft, or of causing significant computer performance problems.

She pointed to a compatibility issue that Microsoft experienced just after the launch of Windows XP Service Pack 2 as partially caused by a hidden spyware application.

The look and feel of the anti-spyware beta is similar those of products from vendors such as McAfee and Norton, which offer people the ability to launch manual scans for unwanted applications and to program the tool to run automated searches. Microsoft's application is designed to monitor all system and software changes made to a particular computer and launches pop-up announcements to let customers know when the system has detected an attempt to install spyware.

The software, designed to work with the company's Windows 2000 and Windows XP operating systems but not with earlier versions, asks that users validate their existing Microsoft software via an online authentication process before downloading the anti-spyware tools. However, the company does give the option to skip the validation process.

Interestingly, one of the first messages generated by the anti-spyware tool is a recommendation to turn off Microsoft's own Windows Messenger Service, a program the software cites as a "wide source for pop-up message spam." However, Carroll said this function was intentional, as the company had previously encouraged customers to shun the application as part of the SP2 release.

Microsoft said users of existing Giant anti-spyware applications should continue to use those tools. The company was also quick to point out that the beta release is merely a first version of the software that the company is distributing for feedback and testing purposes.

The software maker is also working on an antivirus package, which is likely to be a standalone application. The tool is expected to be released sometime later this year. Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group of Milford, Mass., said the software maker will probably wait until the second half of 2005 to begin its efforts in full.

"I don't think Microsoft is in a hurry here. The rumor is that the company will enter the PC security space in the third or fourth quarter of this year," Oltsik said. "My guess is this means a direct attack on Norton and McAfee in the retail channel. This market is booming, so an entrance before next holiday season makes sense."

In addition to the anti-spyware beta, Microsoft announced that starting on Jan. 11, it will begin providing tools for removing malicious software to customers running Windows 2000 and later versions. The company said updates to the applications will be made available on a monthly basis as part of its scheduled security updates, or more frequently if necessary. The package will consolidate many of the individual software removal tools the company has already released.

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