Microsoft Corp., whose popular Windows software is a frequent target for Internet viruses, is offering a free security program to remove the most dangerous infections from computers.
The program, with monthly updates, is a step toward plans by Microsoft to sell full-blown antivirus software later this year.
Microsoft said Thursday that consumers can download the new security program from the company's Web site — www.microsoft.com — and that updated versions will be offered automatically and free each month. It will be available starting Tuesday.
Also, Microsoft offered Thursday a free program to remove "spyware," a category of irritating programs that secretly monitor the activities of Internet users and can cause sluggish computer performance or popup ads.
Microsoft said the virus-removal program will not prevent computer infections and was never intended to replace the need for traditional antivirus software, such as flagship products from McAfee Inc. or Symantec Corp.
But a senior Microsoft executive confirmed the company's plans to sell its own antivirus software, which would compete against programs from McAfee, Symantec and others.
Microsoft purchased a Romanian antivirus firm, GeCAD Software Srl., for an undisclosed amount in 2003. Industry rivals expect Microsoft's formal entry into the market as early as the spring.
"We will have a stand-alone antivirus product that is one of the things you can buy from Microsoft, but we're not announcing anything today," said Rich Kaplan, vice president for Microsoft's security business and technology unit.
The offers of free virus- and spyware-removal tools were intended to convince consumers that Microsoft is working to improve its software's security, Kaplan said.
Microsoft and other companies occasionally have offered separate programs to disinfect specific viruses. Microsoft promised its new removal tool will target a variety of infections and will be updated each month to recognize new ones.
Microsoft is sensitive to criticism about the susceptibility of its Windows operating system software to computer viruses. It has responded by tightening security for its popular Outlook e-mail software and improving the protective firewall utility for Windows. But its reputation largely has hinged on consumers' effective use of antivirus products and other security programs outside Microsoft's control.
Microsoft has proceeded more cautiously in recent years as it moves to compete against its one-time partners. European antitrust regulators last year fined the company $613 million over charges it abused its software monopoly. Microsoft is operating under restrictions from a U.S. antitrust settlement with the Bush administration until 2007.
Kaplan encouraged consumers to buy updated antivirus software from vendors such as Symantec and McAfee. He also expressed confidence that an industry organization formed to share details between Microsoft and leading antivirus companies about virus outbreaks would survive Microsoft's decision to compete directly against those same businesses.
also recommends some free programs to combat spyware.
"Spybot Search and Destroy is very aggressive and pretty easy to use. The free version of Ad-Aware is easy to use, effective but not as aggressive as Spybot," Magid says. "You can download both from Download.com."
Antivirus vendors have warned investors about the fallout as Microsoft enters the market. McAfee, for example, said in its most recent annual report that its own products could become "obsolete and unmarketable" if Microsoft were to include antivirus protection in Windows software.
A Symantec executive, Vincent Weafer, said Microsoft's success as an antivirus company at Symantec's expense was not guaranteed. Weafer noted that some leading security companies have decades of specialized experience and skilled researchers.
"This is an area we certainly think we can differentiate ourselves from Microsoft," Weafer said. "We've worked hard over the years to build trust with customers."
Microsoft disclosed last month that it planned to offer software to remove spyware programs that are secretly running on computers. But in a shift from past practice, Microsoft said it may charge consumers for future versions of the new protective technology, which Microsoft acquired by buying a small New York software firm.
Kaplan said the free version of Microsoft's new spyware-removal software will expire July 31 and pricing for future versions is still undecided. Rival anti-spyware tools, such as Lavasoft Inc.'s popular Ad-Aware product, offer similar functions to Microsoft's, and many are free.