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Can free security save the web?

Protecting Windows from malware has always been a sensitive subject for Microsoft, given that many people blame the software giant for causing all the problems in the first place.

The operating system is notoriously susceptible to attack and Microsoft has known for several years that it must do more to protect users. Malware is so pervasive that one could argue Windows isn't fit for purpose out of the box - any PC connecting to the web without security software is living on borrowed time.

Therefore, Microsoft has been treading a fine line since launching its OneCare security product two years ago. Critics claimed the firm was charging Windows users for a second product just to make sure the first operates safely. It's a bit like buying a car, only to find out the brakes are an added extra.

This is slightly unfair on Microsoft, whose software is a target for hackers and malware writers largely because it's so widely used. And over the past 10 years we've come to terms with having to fork out for third-party security software.

However, if you believe some of the headlines over the past few weeks, that may be about to change. Microsoft announced that it will kill off OneCare next summer, and replace it with a free antivirus product codenamed ‘Morro'.

At the heart of this strategy is a drive to increase the number of computers with antivirus protection installed. Microsoft cites some pretty worrying statistics to explain the problem: as many as 50 percent of computers aren't properly protected. This seems an incredible figure to those of us who have been studiously installing and updating antivirus for years.

Microsoft contends that many consumers are confused by the bloatware that's preinstalled on brand-new PCs - they think a trial version of Norton ensures they've got security sorted, blissfully unaware that it can become a hindrance once the 90-day trial is up. So, despite running on OneCare's less-than-convincing antimalware engine, Morro will be better than nothing.

But Morro won't include the bells and whistles provided by specialists in the field, such as Symantec, McAfee and Kaspersky; the latest suites offer a combination of malware protection, PC optimisation, antispam and backup features. Microsoft is unlikely to provide these for free because of antitrust concerns.

However, if Morro convinces those who take a slack attitude to security to finally get some antivirus protection, their systems will present less of a threat to the internet at large. Unprotected PCs are an easy target and many of them are recruited into the botnets responsible for distributing malicious code in the first place.

So while the prospect of a Microsoft product that's secure out of the box remains a distant one, Morro is a step in the right direction that could benefit us all.

Do-it-yourself security

You can, of course, already get security software for nothing. Some of the products that made it into our list of the 50 best Windows programs provide decent protection from online threats, and many of them are free.

The only problem with a do-it-yourself security setup is that it takes a bit of managing and updating. You won't be able to leave these products running in the background unattended. But for those who like to get their hands dirty, there are some real gems. Pick up a copy of our February issue to see for yourself.

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