OS makers: Security is job No. 1

New generation of software focuses as much on security as on glitzy features, as consumers get frustrated by viruses and fraud threats.

Look beyond the bells and whistles, and make sure the security's tough.

That's the attitude of operating system makers, who aren't just focusing on features such as snazzy graphics and better networking tools when revamping products. Now they're also providing sturdier defenses.

The new generation of OSes includes improvements aimed at keeping data more safe. Microsoft, long the target of hackers' efforts and resulting customer ire, has promised anti-spyware and other tools in the upcoming version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. And while they aren't as aggressive about marketing their security efforts, Apple Computer and Linux-seller Novell recently released updates with an eye to stronger defenses.


What's new:
The next generation of operating systems focuses as much on tough security as it does on whistles and bells.

Bottom line:
Development of better defenses is a response to growing frustration among consumers, who are fending off a rising tide of viruses and fraud threats.

More stories on OS security

That doesn't mean companies aren't still serving up other advances, such as smoother collaboration or more-comprehensive search. But given home PC owners' growing worries about security, OS makers are aiming to prove they are trying harder to prevent software vulnerabilities and protect against outside attacks.

"The OS makers know that their futures depend on the trust that buyers have with their products, and buyers aren't trusting computers today," Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler said. "We know that people are downloading less music, shopping online less and steering away from online banking because of security fears."

Several high-profile incidents of data theft, such as the ChoicePoint breach, have highlighted the need to protect confidential personal information. Alerts about phishing and other online fraud schemes have further publicized the risks. On top of this, malicious code writers have not let up on sending out traditional PC viruses.

Even though these consumer security threats sometimes take advantage of weak points in technologies other than operating systems, or exploit people's habits, OS makers often bear the brunt of the blame for them, Schadler said.

"(Security) is a problem that consumers are increasingly aware of and angry about, and they want to blame someone," he said. "The OS players are taking notice because they have to."

For Web designer Eugene Abovsky, 23, helping his friends and family members keep their PCs running smoothly and securely in his spare time has become an uphill battle as security concerns multiply. Abovsky works only with Microsoft's Windows, and he said that juggling patches and warding off "malware"--malicous software--have become time-consuming ventures that leave him frustrated with the software giant.

"Microsoft should be ashamed at the level of protection they provide to the average consumer who uses Windows," he said. "Almost all of the Windows computers I deal with in the homes of people I know have been so infested with spyware, malware and adware that they are almost unusable."

For Microsoft, the dominance of Windows and a string of high-profile vulnerabilities have translated into serious headaches around attacks and security. In addition, the company's software has historically come under more attack from hackers than that of its rivals.

To respond to these, Microsoft developed its Trustworthy Computing initiative, launched in 2002, which aims to improve the security and public perceptions of its products. It also issues a monthly bulletin of security patches, and its last significant update to the full version of Windows, Service Pack 2, was centered on security.

The results of those efforts have produced, in Longhorn, an operating system that will more aggressively defend computers, said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager at Microsoft. Among other defensive moves, it actively fights the installation of malicious programs such as spyware and automatically quarantines devices that could have acquired viruses outside home or business networks, he said.

"Clearly we have a very significant role to play in making sure that our platform is one that customers can use safely and securely, and that's

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