As much as Microsoft works to protect its software from hackers and other Internet threats, there is one aspect of computer security it cannot control: getting people to use antivirus software.
The company is concerned that 70 percent of consumer personal computers do not have updated antivirus protection, said Brad Smith, Microsoft's chief lawyer, in a keynote speech to lawyers yesterday.
"It is such an obvious threat to everybody who uses a PC," Smith said. If people start to think that computers are more problematic to use, the technology industry's long-term health could be at risk, he added.
Smith was speaking to an audience of several dozen at a conference sponsored by the Seattle University School of Law and TechNet, a national group of technology executives.
Microsoft relies on other companies, such as Symantec and McAfee Security, to provide computer users with antivirus software. Trial versions of such software usually come preinstalled in computers, but a full version usually costs more.
That extra cost is one reason more people don't update the software when the trial period runs out.
Microsoft could include antivirus software free in Windows, and an increasing number of customers are raising the issue, Smith said.
"But the reality is over the last decade, Microsoft has been sued not for leaving things out but for putting things in," he said, referring, partly in jest, to antitrust investigations against the company for bundling products with its Windows operating system.
Smith didn't mention another reality, which is that including antivirus software in Windows would anger some key partners, remove a source of revenue for Microsoft and decimate the growing antivirus software industry.
There would be no need for someone to go to Symantec for antivirus protection if it was freely available in Windows. A similar issue has plagued RealNetworks and other makers of digital media software, who have found it difficult to compete because Microsoft includes its own digital media player for free in Windows.
Smith also said security issues have become more important as more people use high-speed, or broadband, Internet connections.
A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that about 55 percent of Internet users have broadband access at home or work. And 39 percent have broadband at home.
Those numbers are going to be far higher before this decade ends, Smith said.
People with a broadband connection are likely to have an "always on" Internet connection, Smith said. Those computers are vulnerable unless they are well-protected, he said.
"As we think about broadband usage it really does force us to focus even more seriously on the issue of Internet security," he said.
Smith said Microsoft could not go alone in developing computer and network security. The effort needs the cooperation of the industry, of law enforcement, governments worldwide and others. But the largest burden must be carried by the technology industry, he said.
"As the companies that create and implement this technology," he said, "I think there's no doubt that we have the greatest responsibility to be proactive and to invest further in research and development to address these kinds of issues."
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