Spyware has become a serious security problem for users of Microsoft's operating system over the past years, giving rise to a host of third-party tools to fight the insidious software. But perhaps the best defensive program has yet to ship, some analysts believe.
Microsoft later this year, the long-awaited successor to Windows XP. The operating system is being designed to . It will introduce at the heart of the operating system, as well as to Internet Explorer, and include Windows Defender, an anti-spyware tool.
"The spyware threat will definitely shrink or shrivel" as Vista gets adopted, said John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner. "We got a handle on spam. It still gets through, but it is such a small percentage now, we know how to deal with what gets through. That same thing will happen to spyware. It will be under control."
While Microsoft was working on Vista, spyware. Experts believe the malicious software, which pops up ads on screens or spies on PC users, has been surreptitiously put on more than three-quarters of PCs. In an , 80 percent of businesses reported spyware trouble, making it the most common security woe after viruses, worms and Trojan horses.
Every new version of Windows offers some security improvements, but Vista more so, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "Vista, because it was pretty much conceived during the toughest times for Microsoft with regards to malicious software, has the most protection in it compared to any of their platforms," he said.
Spyware and its less-noxious cousin adware are widely despised for their sneaky distribution tactics, unauthorized data gathering and slowing of PCs. The unwanted software does not typically land on a computer the way a virus or a worm does. Instead, it creeps onto a system by tricking the user into clicking on a malicious link on a Web site or in an instant message. Alternatively, the distributor may secretly bundle it with an innocuous application that the user does want, such as a free application for file sharing.
Though spyware has been able to haunt users of XP, it won't be as easy for miscreants to get their malicious software onto machines that run Vista, said Austin Wilson, a director in the Windows Client group at Microsoft.
Vista takes on spyware
Microsoft is taking a three-pronged approach with Windows Vista to reduce the threat of spyware.
User Account Control
By default, Windows Vista will run with fewer user privileges. The privileges control how a user can interact with the software. Most Windows XP users have "administrator" privileges, which could be abused by malicious software to install itself on a computer.
In Windows Vista, users will have to invoke administrator rights to perform certain tasks, such as installing software.
IE 7 will run in "protected mode." This mode will prevent silent installs of malicious software by stopping the Web browser from writing data anywhere on the PC except in a temporary files folder without first seeking permission.
Microsoft's anti-spyware tool will block and clean up any infections that do make it through. The tool scans for spyware, adware, rootkits and other malicious code, but does not include antivirus technology.
"We have taken out a significant number of the attack vectors that spyware authors use today," said Austin Wilson, a director in the Windows Client group at Microsoft. "We're not saying that spyware will be gone because of Windows Vista. We do think we will make a significant impact."
Microsoft is taking a multipronged approach to fight spyware. Unlike XP, Vista will run by default with fewer user privileges. People will have to invoke full, "administrator," privileges to perform tasks such as installing an application.
Also,, included with Vista, will prevent silent installs of malicious code by stopping the browser from writing data anywhere except in a temporary files folder without first seeking permission. Lastly, will clean up any infections that do make it through.
"It is three layers of protection," Wilson said.
While this may be good news for buyers of Vista, it is not for anyone who makes a living from selling anti-spyware software. The worldwide market has boomed recently, reaching $97 million in revenue in 2004, up 240.4 percent from a year earlier, according to IDC. However, companies such as Webroot Software and Sunbelt Software are in for tough times, analysts said.
"The aftermarket for Windows anti-spyware is going to dry up almost completely," said Yankee Group analyst Andrew Jaquith. "Windows Defender is going to become the default anti-spyware engine, certainly for most consumers that have Vista machines."
Gartner's Pescatore agreed. "Integrating Windows Defender into Windows Vista is sort of the last nail into the standalone anti-spyware coffin," he said.