Microsoft software, browser to be more secure, Gates says

Conference told of virus, anti-fraud safeguards

February 16, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

SAN FRANCISCO - Microsoft Corp. plans to introduce anti-virus software and distribute free anti-spyware programs by the end of this year in its latest attempt to improve widely criticized security problems with its software.

The world's biggest software company also plans to build new anti-fraud tools into the next version of its popular Internet Explorer Web browser, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said yesterday at a computer security conference.

Gates said Internet Explorer 7 is scheduled for release this summer. The anti-fraud tools will be aimed at preventing "phishing" ruses that use fake Web sites to trick users into giving up sensitive data such as credit-card or Social Security numbers.

Gates' promises to step up security and get into the anti-virus business are nothing new, and they were greeting with skepticism by some at the RSA Security Conference here.

"It's the same old rhetoric," Symantec Corp. Chairman John Thompson said. "If they've got products, put some products out. Or, more importantly, do more to protect Windows."

As the software that runs more than 90 percent of personal computers, Microsoft's Windows operating system has increasingly been criticized in recent years for security flaws.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has issued hundreds of software "patches" to fix security holes in its programs. Some vulnerabilities in Windows products have been so serious that some government agencies and companies have declined to buy them.

Wary of the criticism and the effects on Microsoft's profits, Gates wrote a sharp memo to all Microsoft employees several years ago proclaiming that security and what he calls "trustworthy computing" should be paramount.

He said security remains his company's top priority and that about one-third of the company's $6 billion annual research and development budget is earmarked for security projects.

Trustworthy computing "is the one thing we need to make sure we get absolutely right," Gates told conference attendees.

Phishing, viruses and other maladies are apparently starting to take a toll not just on Microsoft, but on the whole technology industry.

According to a survey by RSA Security Inc., a quarter of online shoppers reduced their Internet shopping last year because of security concerns.

"I've been steadfast in not being a fear-monger, but some of the spyware, the malware, the Trojan attacks are having a real effect on the way people view the Internet," said RSA Chief Executive Officer Art Coviello.

Because Windows is the most widely used operating system, many security experts have criticized Microsoft in particular for not making software that is more secure to begin with.

Gates' keynote speech at the conference was generally well received by security experts, but some scoffed at his speech on security.

Hard-core technology aficionados might discount Microsoft's record on security, but most consumers tied to the company's products are probably more forgiving, said Eric Peterson, an analyst with Jupitermedia of Darien, Conn.

If Microsoft distributes its anti-virus software for a low enough price, it could substantially shake up the market for anti-virus software, he said.

"If Microsoft comes in and says you can have ours for free or for $20 for a lifetime license ... that definitely would put a hurt on any company" in the business, Peterson said.

Symantec's Thompson said he is not concerned as long as Microsoft doesn't try to abuse its power and integrate its anti-virus software directly into Windows, an approach it took to eventually dominate the Web browser business.

"As long as it's fair, we can compete," Thompson said.

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