Rivals skirmish with Microsoft over Vista security

Competitors say they should be able replace a Windows feature that tells people about the security status of their PC.

Microsoft and its security rivals are feuding over a key piece of Windows Vista real estate.

The fight is over the display of technology that helps Vista owners manage the security tools on their PC. Symantec, McAfee, Check Point Software Technologies and other companies want Microsoft to change Vista so their products can easily replace the operating system's built-in Windows Security Center on the desktop. But Microsoft is resisting the call.

"By imposing the Windows Security Center on all Windows users, Microsoft is defining a template through which everybody looks at security," Bruce McCorkendale, a chief engineer at Symantec, said in an interview. "How do we trust that Microsoft knows what all the important things about security are to warn users about?"

Windows Security Center, introduced with Windows XP Service Pack 2, pops up on desktops to alert PC owners if their firewall, virus protection and other security tools need attention. The version in the Vista update, set for broad release in January, will add new categories and management tools.

It is possible to run third-party security consoles in Vista, said Stephen Toulouse, a program manager in Microsoft's Security Technology Unit. However, people have to manually disable the Windows Security Center if they don't want to use it. And the software giant has no plans to give other companies the ability to turn off the Windows Security Center, Toulouse noted.

"Our main concern is to provide customers with a fall-back option if there is no other security center running," he said.

If the differences aren't worked out, it could spell annoyance for consumers, the rival security companies say. People who choose to use Microsoft's console alone will get a limited view of their Vista PC protection, they suggest. Those who buy competing software will have to run it alongside Microsoft's dashboard, which could report conflicting information. Rivals have charged that the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is hurting consumers, raising the specter of more antitrust complaints for Microsoft.

"Microsoft's Windows Security Center demonstrates fairly limited sophistication, and having (it) control the console could take away the consumer's visibility into the threats he faces," said Siobhan MacDermott, a spokeswoman for McAfee. "Ultimately, it's something the consumer should decide, not Microsoft."

Jostling for position
Tensions are flying high in the security space after Microsoft, with its $34 billion war chest, entered the market. It launched Windows Live OneCare for consumers and is readying enterprise security products. With its huge presence on desktops, the software giant has a built-in advantage--one that is making other security companies nervous. European antitrust regulators are closely watching Microsoft.

Security companies have already fought several battles over Vista similar to the one about Windows Security Center. Some they won. Most recently, Microsoft added the ability for third-party products to turn off Windows Defender spyware protection in Vista, rather than requiring the PC user to do it. Earlier, it provided the same functionality for the Windows Firewall. In both cases, Microsoft has asked security companies to re-enable the Windows defenses if their products are removed from a PC.

Security centers

A dispute still exists over "PatchGuard," a security feature that Microsoft says is designed to guard core parts of the 64-bit version of Vista, but which critics say locks out helpful software from security rivals.

And then there is Windows Security Center, which sits in the Windows Control Panel and pops up any time there is a security alert, such as when antivirus protection is disabled or the firewall is turned off. Microsoft is beefing up the console in the successor to XP, and refers to it as the "voice of security for Windows Vista."

In Vista, the security dashboard will add reports on spyware protection, Internet security settings, and Windows security technology called "User Account Control."

Another change in Vista is that Windows Security Center will be used to manage the security software, in addition to reporting on it. For example, a PC user could update antivirus definitions or disable a firewall directly from the Windows Security Center, according to a recently published Microsoft document on the feature.

This could give rivals the opportunity to change tack and focus on developing products that plug into Microsoft's security dashboard, rather than continuing to produce their own, Toulouse suggested. "They might not need to have their own security center anymore," he said. "It is our hope that they build products that connect into Windows Security Center."

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