SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Stepping up its fight against computer threats at the risk of alienating security businesses, Microsoft Corp. announced Tuesday it will give away a program to combat privacy-stealing and PC-clogging spyware and other virtual pests.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also unveiled plans to release antivirus tools for consumers and make a major security upgrade to its Internet Explorer Web browser. At the same time, he showed off new software for businesses to combat security threats.
The moves are part of a wide-ranging effort by the world's largest software maker to improve the security and reliability of its Windows operating system and other programs, which have become favorite targets of hackers, virus writers and other malware creators.
Speaking at the annual RSA Conference, a major gathering of computer security experts, Gates outlined successes over the past year but did not suggest total victory was imminent or even possible. Microsoft has distributed more than 170 million copies of a major security enhancement to Windows XP since its release last year, but Gates said more work is needed.
"It's a challenging area and new threats seem to be emerging all the time," Gates said. "But I'm optimistic ... we'll be able to mitigate the security problems and therefore let the advances of this digital infrastructure allow for fantastic things to happen."
Gates said spyware and adware threats are growing more quickly than worms and viruses. The programs that track Web surfing, generate pop-up ads and slow systems are often installed when users try to run free software without reading the license agreement. Later versions also have taken advantage of known Windows flaws to sneak onto machines.
"Spyware ... is something we need to nip now," Gates said.
In December, Microsoft purchased Giant Software Co. and turned its offering into Microsoft AntiSpyware. Gates said more than 6 million copies of a free "beta," or test, version have been downloaded.
Besides the consumer software, Microsoft will sell tools that are better suited for businesses where administrators need more control over their computers.
But numerous companies are already selling or giving away programs for cleaning machines of the unwanted programs. Microsoft's decision to give its software away is reminiscent of its decision to bundle an Internet browser and media player with Windows - something that landed the company in legal hot water both in the United States and Europe.
Microsoft's plan to give away its software didn't surprise or scare Richard Stiennon, vice president of threats research at Boulder, Colo.-based Webroot Software Inc., maker of the popular Spy Sweeper program. Webroot charges $29.95 a year for updates and support.
"All I can say is, you get what you pay for," Stiennon said. "Security is a huge learning curve to climb, and Microsoft is just stepping into these waters."
Microsoft's free product also is likely to be targeted by hackers and other malware developers. Just last week, a "Trojan horse" program was detected that attempts to shut down its antispyware program as well as steal online banking passwords.
"It may be the first of many such future attacks," said Gregg Mastoras, senior security analyst at Sophos PLC, a security firm.
Microsoft's broader consumer antivirus tools, which Gates said would be made available by the end of the year, will face similar challenges. He did not elaborate on what will be offered or how much it might cost.
The tools for consumers and businesses will compete directly with existing products from the likes of Symantec Corp., McAfee Inc. and others, all of which have been profiting for years from Microsoft vulnerabilities and the hackers who target them.
"It will be a battle, but (security companies) have been expecting this to come for a while and they're prepared for it," said Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc.
Vincent Gulloto, vice president of McAfee's Antivirus and Vulnerability Emergency Response Team, said his company currently has a partnership with Microsoft and "we have all intentions to maintain it."
Symantec also plans to continue partnering with Microsoft, but noted the software giant hasn't released details on how it's going to jump into the market, Symantec said in a statement.
"As long as there is (a) level playing field, we welcome that competition," the statement read.
Gates also said Microsoft would begin testing this summer an update to its Internet Explorer browser, version 7. The update, mainly security-related improvements, would be available only to users of the latest version of Windows - XP with last summer's Service Pack 2 upgrade, which also came with security improvements to IE 6.
It also will be bundled with the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.
The company did not mention any non-security improvements such as features found in rival browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Opera.
AP Technology Writer Rachel Konrad in San Francisco contributed to this report.