Microsoft Corp. announced yesterday that it is giving away software designed to help protect Windows users from spyware, one of the fastest-growing of Internet annoyances.
The release marked a new foray for the software giant and prompted several analysts to suggest that the company would eventually enter the market for computer security software.
Share prices for antivirus companies such as McAfee Inc. and Symantec Corp. fell following the announcement. At the close of the market yesterday afternoon, Symantec was down $1.86, or 7.4 percent, to $23.18 a share. McAfee was down $1.48 to $25.15, a 5.6 percent drop from the previous day's close.
Spyware is a general term for programs that surreptitiously transmit information about a computer user via the Internet. Some versions allow interlopers to change Web home pages or shove pop-up ads onto people's screens as they surf the Web. The software can slow a computer's performance so much that it becomes practically unusable.
The software generally comes, like computer viruses, through e-mail or unwitting downloads of software carrying the troublesome programs.
Microsoft's anti-spyware technology comes from Giant Company Software Inc., a New York-based computer security company that Microsoft acquired in December. Now dubbed Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware, Giant's former product is being released as a free download at Microsoft's Web site (www.microsoft.com/athome/security).
Microsoft said the software is still in unfinished, or "beta," form and would not say when consumers can expect a final product.
Computer maker Dell Inc. has said that as many as 20 percent of recent calls to its support centers are spyware-related. Amy Carroll, director of product management for security technology unit at Microsoft, said yesterday that one-third of the Windows software crashes reported to the company can be traced back to spyware programs.
The antivirus software industry takes in about $3 billion in revenue, but research firm IDC estimates that fewer than 25 percent of consumers keep their antivirus and anti-spyware software updated.
The sudden growth of spyware has had the side-effect of quickly creating a new market to address the hazard. Software maker Computer Associates International Inc., for example, recently began selling an anti-spyware product called PestPatrol after purchasing a company by the same name.
George Kafkarkou, senior vice president in charge of consumer products at Computer Associates, said that Microsoft's entry into the anti-spyware arena brings "validation" to the marketplace for products such as PestPatrol; Kafkarkou asserted that "it'll take companies a lot of time to catch up" with his company's anti-spyware product.
Brian Burke, analyst at IDC, said he expects Microsoft to sell a more comprehensive antivirus software product later this year or early 2006.