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Windows Vista thwarts security software

Third-party software will struggle with new OS

PC users switching to Windows Vista next year might have a tougher time getting their security software to work properly, according to Symantec.

The security specialist claims two new features in Microsoft’s next desktop OS (operating system) – an enhanced Windows Security Center as well as a feature in the 64bit version of Vista called PatchGuard – will make it harder for customers to use third-party software.

"There's no question that Microsoft is leveraging a monopolistic position to limit customer choice," said Symantec spokesperson Chris Paden.

While Symantec executives did accuse Microsoft of being more difficult to work with on Vista than with previous OS introductions, they stopped short of accusing the software giant of antitrust violations. "It's not anticompetitive behaviour, because Vista hasn't even hit the market yet," Paden said.

Security vendors such as Symantec have become noticeably twitchy as they've been forced to compete with Microsoft head-on, and the spectre of further antitrust actions looms over Microsoft's every move. Last week the EU (European Union) spokesman on competition, Jonathan Todd, warned that the market could be threatened if Microsoft doesn't allow security vendors a fair chance of competing.

Symantec and other security vendors dislike PatchGuard because it prevents them from accessing the Windows kernel. They say it will stop them from delivering important features such as Symantec's 'anti-tampering' technology, which prevents malicious programs from modifying Symantec's own software.

PatchGuard will also make it more difficult for security vendors to protect against malicious software that takes advantage of kernel-level bugs, said Eric Sites, vice-president of research and development with Sunbelt Software.

"There are a lot of new exploits coming out that exploit kernel-level drivers," he said. "If we're able to get into the kernel, we can watch for things like that, but with what Microsoft is doing we can't do that."

Last week, Microsoft told us that PatchGuard was simply an effort to prevent the kernel from being misused.

"We think there's a significant amount of confusion around," said Stephen Toulouse, senior product manager at Microsoft's security technology unit. "What we're doing is we're walling off the kernel from attackers, because the functionality that is currently there was never meant to be used by anybody – by software vendors or attackers."

But PatchGuard is enabled only in the 64bit version of Windows. Because there are few 64bit applications written for Vista, most of Vista's initial users are expected to run the OS in 32bit mode, and their security software will still be able to access the kernel.

A more immediate issue for Symantec is that many Vista users will find that both the Windows Security Center and Symantec warnings will pop up simultaneously.

This doesn't happen with Windows XP because Symantec's software is able to automatically disable the Windows warnings, but with Vista users will have to turn off the Security Center themselves.

This will make things unnecessarily complicated for many customers, said Rowan Trollope, Symantec's vice-president of consumer engineering. "Most users can't figure out how to do that," he said.

With two warnings popping up, each with different wording, users will be confused, and may simply begin ignoring security warnings altogether, said Sites.

Some observers have speculated that Symantec may press the EU for action against Microsoft in this matter, but Trollope and Paden wouldn't say what Symantec planned to do to address these problems. "We're looking at all the possibilities now," said Trollope, "And none of them are good for customers."


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