Microsoft Rolls Out Subscription Anti-Virus Service

REDMOND, Wash. -- Microsoft Corp. is rolling out a test version of an all-in-one subscription service that aims to protect computer users from viruses and spyware and give them tools to make machines speedier.

The Redmond-based software company is distributing Windows OneCare to its 60,000 employees this week. It plans to run a larger invitation-only test this summer, then launch a full-scale test by year's end.

The company has not said when it would release the subscription service to consumers.

"We're going to take our time. We want to make sure we get this right the first time," said Ryan Hamlin, general manager for Microsoft's technology, care and safety team.

Microsoft hasn't set a price for an annual subscription, but Hamlin said it would include unlimited phone, e-mail and chat support.

Microsoft has spent three years developing the service, which would run only on the operating system's newest version: Windows XP with Service Pack 2, a major security upgrade released last summer.

The company has been devoting more attention to security in recent years as its flagship Windows operating system and market-leading Internet Explorer browser become chief targets for hackers and writers of viruses and spyware.

Microsoft had been expected to enter the antivirus business following its recent acquisition of two antivirus companies. The company already makes a free antispyware tool available for download, and Windows ships with firewall protection.

But the company says most users don't take full advantage of those products.

Among its features, Windows OneCare would offer two-way firewall protection. A green icon would be displayed if the service didn't detect any problems. A yellow icon would indicate a relatively low-priority problem, like some files that needed to be backed up. A red icon would signal a virus or some other critical problem that needed fixing.

PC users could set up OneCare to periodically perform maintenance work like cleaning up disks, repairing files and defragmenting hard drives so that bits of data aren't inefficiently spread out. The service would keep track of how long it takes a computer to boot up and pin down problems that might be making the machine run more slowly. And consumers could opt to have their files automatically backed up on CD or DVD.

Microsoft risks alienating security vendors in releasing its own, competing products, but if it doesn't do more to stem Internet attacks, it also risks further alienating customers unhappy with the multitude of threats already facing its ubiquitous software. Microsoft has downplayed the competitive angle, saying it is simply responding to requests from customers for more protection options.