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Security firms skeptical about Vista shift

Rivals reserve judgment on Microsoft's promise of changes to allay competitive concerns over security features.

Security rivals' reaction to word that Microsoft will make changes in Windows Vista to allay competitive concerns: We'll believe it when we see it.

On Friday, Microsoft said it will give security software makers technology to access the kernel of 64-bit versions of Vista for security-monitoring purposes. Additionally, the company said it will make it possible for security companies to disable certain parts of the Windows Security Center in Vista when a third-party security console is installed.

Microsoft made both changes in response to antitrust concerns from the European Commission. Led by Symantec, the world's largest antivirus software maker, security companies had publicly criticized Microsoft over both Vista features and also talked to European competition officials about their gripes.

Security companies are taking note of the changes Microsoft said it would make to the operating system update, but will judge the outcome when they actually see them.

"We have not seen anything yet," said Cris Paden, a Symantec spokesman. "These are technical issues. Until we actually see the APIs, all we know is what they have said in the media. So far they have not done anything yet."

APIs, or application program interfaces, are the actual parts of Vista that Microsoft on Friday said it would make available so that security companies can access the Vista kernel and disable parts of Windows Security Center.

"If it is true, then it would be a step in the right direction for giving customers the choice to use whatever solutions they would like," Paden said.

Inside Vista

The technology to suppress Windows Security Center alerts should be available next week, but APIs related to kernel protection still need to be developed and may not be ready before Microsoft ships Vista to PC makers and CD factories, said Adrien Robinson, a director in Microsoft's Security Technology Unit.

"We do not want vendors... accessing the kernel through unmodified approaches or modifying the kernel," Robinson said. "We will not allow them to go on the fly and modify the kernel, basically circumventing PatchGuard. We need to work with them on the right approaches to work with PatchGuard."

Points of contention
Kernel protection and Windows Security Center were two of the main points of contention between Microsoft and its security rivals. Symantec, McAfee and others had charged that Microsoft was hurting the competition and creating an unfair advantage for its own products through these features.

In 64-bit versions of Vista, the kernel protection, or PatchGuard, not only locked out hackers but also prevented some security software from running, security companies have said. They had asked for a way to access the kernel, which Microsoft insisted would hurt the security and stability of Windows. Microsoft now says it will provide that access, albeit in a controlled way.

"We have committed to create a new set of APIs that will enable third-party security products to access the Windows kernel in a secure manner," Microsoft said in a statement on Friday.

Windows Security Center, a key piece of Windows Vista real estate, tells people the status of security on their Vista PC, such as whether antivirus software or a firewall is installed and running. Security rivals have asked for a way to disable the Windows Security Center in favor of their own security dashboards.

Microsoft appears to be granting some, but not all, of that wish. "We are creating a new set of APIs to ensure that Windows Security Center will not send an alert to a computer user when an alternative competing security console is installed on the PC and is sending the same alert instead," Microsoft said in a statement.

Windows Security Center will continue to be running on the system so that a customer can have a cross-vendor, cross-technology view of the security on their Vista PC, Robinson said. In other words, third-party products won't be able to completely hide the Windows Security Center interface, which is what security companies had asked for.

Still skeptical
McAfee and Check Point Software Technologies, maker of ZoneAlarm security software, welcomed Microsoft's announcement, but, like Symantec, reserved judgment.

"We are encouraged by Microsoft's recognition that there is a problem. However, we do not have specific information on the nature of these changes, or their timing," said Siobhan MacDermott, a McAfee spokeswoman. "As more information becomes available, we will study it carefully before forming a view on whether Microsoft's plans provide a reasonable basis for addressing these issues."

Check Point's response also stressed that the clock is ticking on the release of Vista.

"We are encouraged to see Microsoft taking the security industry's concerns seriously," said Laura Yecies, general manager of Check Point's ZoneAlarm consumer division. "Once we have a chance to see what capabilities the new kernel-level APIs will extend to us, we'll have a better idea if they will be adequate. We hope to see those new API's soon."

Timing is of the essence. Security providers, including Symantec and McAfee, want to have products available that work with Vista the moment it is released. Vista, the long-awaited successor to Windows XP, is slated to be available to large business users next month and the general public in January.

"If the APIs exist, then Microsoft should make them available to the security industry immediately," Symantec's Paden said. "We will have Vista compatible solutions when the operating system is finally available for consumers. Last we heard, that was going to be January; therefore, we need these APIs yesterday."