In response, the software company is unveiling on Friday a new subscription-based computer fix-it service, aimed at automatically patching security holes, blocking viruses and spyware, and generally automating the chores of maintaining a computer's health.
Dubbed Windows OneCare, the service will draw in part on existing tools like the company's, as well as on basic PC management functions inside Windows. But it will add a more powerful firewall, ongoing antivirus protection, and the right to get a live support person on the phone without paying extra, the company said.
"We're trying to address a consumer need we see being unmet today," said Dennis Bonsall, group product manager for the company's technology care and safety group, noting that most people don't run even a basic antivirus scan on their computers at home. "Our target is those consumers who aren't protected by this kind of PC health solution today."
The service, which won't be available for ordinary consumers even in beta until much later this year, represents the latest stage in Microsoft's move against the security problems that have plagued its software over the past few years.
But it also adds to the growing number of ways, such as with MSN and the Xbox Live gaming service, that the company is seeking to establish an ongoing billing relationship with customers. The service should provide the company with recurring revenue, as opposed to the one-time sales of software releases like Windows or Microsoft Office.
The OneCare service marks the first time that Microsoft has offered antivirus software directly to consumers, even though it has spent several yearsthat offer the technology. Executives said they did not plan on offering the virus-fighting technology outside the OneCare bundle of services.
The package will also include the Microsoft's spyware-fighting tools and a firewall that blocks unauthorized outbound traffic, such as spyware data, as well as the inbound traffic blocked by XP.
Analysts said a Microsoft antivirus product would be likely to appeal to the large percentage of consumers--close to 75 percent, by some estimates--who have no virus protection loaded on their computers.
"I don't think that Microsoft is going to take market share away from (security providers like Symantec), but instead it's more likely (Microsoft) will be able to attract a lot of people who haven't had antivirus on their desktops before," said Gartner analyst Peter Firstbrook.
The OneCare package also will offer automatic computer care tools such as disk defragging and file repair, and scheduled data backup features that will save critical data such as photos and financial information to CDs or DVDs.
Microsoft critics often point out that many of the worst PC problems, ranging from viruses to spyware, take advantage of security vulnerabilities in Microsoft's own Windows, Internet Explorer and other software. But company executives said there was nothing untoward about charging consumers in part to block these problems.
"I think that at this point, a fair number of the kind of threats we see on the security front are not just attacking vulnerabilities," said Amy Roberts, director of product management in Microsoft's Security, Business and Technology unit. "Security is a key component, but OneCare goes beyond that to help customers have a broader sense of PC health."
The service will be launched in beta form to Microsoft employees in a week, and will be released to consumers in late summer or fall, the software giant said. The company did not provide any details on projected pricing.