Microsoft tests parental-control software

Windows Live OneCare Family Safety to help parents keep certain Web content from reaching their children.

Security
Slightly later than planned, Microsoft on Wednesday released a trial version of a free parental-control tool for Windows XP.

Windows Live OneCare Family Safety is designed to help keep Web content that parents deem inappropriate from reaching their children. The beta version of the tool, available to the general public, updates an earlier preview version of the tool made available to about 3,000 testers in March.

"Child safety parental control is really a top-of-mind issue. It just keeps getting bigger with all the coverage around social networking and MySpace and things like that," said Alan Packer, a product unit manager at Microsoft. "There was an expectation from our customers that we should be doing more to help keep them safer online."

The first version of OneCare Family Safety will let people filter online content and get activity reports on Web sites that were visited by others, Packer said.

Before the product's final release, Microsoft plans to add "contact management" features that let parents approve contacts within their Windows Live Mail e-mail and Windows Live Messenger instant-messaging programs. The feature also gives parents control over who can access their children's blogs on Microsoft's MSN Spaces service.

The OneCare Family Safety version released Wednesday is a significant update from the March test version, but it is still a beta, Packer said. Microsoft continues to fine-tune the sign-up process as well as other parts of the product, he said. A final version is due out in the "coming months," he added.

Just more than half of U.S. families with Net-surfing teenagers use filtering programs, with more than 12 million copies of such software in use, according to a study conducted last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Microsoft competes with other filtering products, including CyberPatrol from SurfControl, as well as tools provided by Internet service providers.

In addition to OneCare Family Safety, Microsoft is building parental controls into Windows Vista, the next version of the operating system slated to be broadly available in January. "These products are designed to be complementary," Packer said. OneCare Family Safety includes an online service that Vista will also be able to take advantage of, he said.

The beta of OneCare Family Safety is available in the United States today. In September, Microsoft plans to release a beta for 34 additional markets in 16 languages, Packer said.

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