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."
_____More About Microsoft_____
Microsoft Touts Anti-Spyware Programs (Associated Press, Feb 15, 2005)
Microsoft Still Patching Software Security Holes (The Washington Post, Feb 9, 2005)
Microsoft Acts on Antitrust Ruling (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)
E.U. Orders Microsoft To Modify Windows (The Washington Post, Dec 23, 2004)
Microsoft Settles With Trade Group (The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2004)
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 anti-spyware program as well as steal online banking passwords.
"It may be the first of many such future attacks," said Gregg Mastoras, senior 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 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 Gullotto, vice president of McAfee's Antivirus and Vulnerability Emergency Response Team, said his company has a partnership with Microsoft and "we have all intentions to maintain it."
Symantec also plans to continue partnering with Microsoft, but noted that 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 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 such as Mozilla Firefox and Opera.
Associated Press writer Rachel Konrad in San Francisco contributed to this report.