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Microsoft makes OneCare free for some

Select number of beta testers is invited to use the service at no cost and will have early access to new features.

As Microsoft prepares to roll out its Windows Live OneCare security product, it is offering some people the $49.95-a-year service for free.

On Tuesday, Microsoft sent e-mail invitations to a select number of people who have been testing OneCare, asking them to join a "perpetual beta." These people get to use the service at no cost and will have early access to new features, said Brooke Richardson, a lead product manager at Microsoft.

"They do not have to pay for the service, but we ask them to give us feedback," she said. "We expect it will be a small number of our users, less than 1 percent of our user base, that we will ask to stay in this perpetual beta." That would be hundreds or thousands of users, Richardson said.

The testers will receive beta software, which could have glitches, Richardson said. However, Microsoft doesn't plan to load code onto PCs that will really break the system, she said. Testers will receive updates to the software a few days before Microsoft plans to release it to the general public, according to Microsoft's beta test Web site, accessible only to testers.

Windows OneCare Live is scheduled to debut in June. It marks Microsoft's entry into the consumer antivirus market, a space previously dominated by specialists such as Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro.

OneCare combines antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software with backup features and several tune-up tools for Windows PCs. The product will be sold online and in stores and cost $49.95 a year for use on up to three PCs, Microsoft has said.

Microsoft announced its intent to offer antivirus products in June 2003 and unveiled its plans for OneCare in May 2005. Invited testers have been trying it out since last July, and a public test version was released late last year. About 170,000 people have tested OneCare, Microsoft said in February. As a thank-you, testers can get a discounted rate of $19.95 per year if they sign up in April, Microsoft has said.

With OneCare, Microsoft is targeting consumers, especially those who do not run security or have let their current product expire. The company says it believes 70 percent of consumers fall into that category. In a recent research note, The Yankee Group estimated the niche as a market worth potentially $15 billion.