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Aiming For A Pest-Free PC


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Keeping a home computer safe from the swarms of pests that infect the Internet has become a major chore for many consumers. You need software to protect you from viruses, spyware, spam, phishing frauds, and assorted electronic assaults -- and you need to keep the programs up-to-date to stay ahead of the evildoers. Now the good guys are riding to the rescue.

In the past couple of years security software vendors such as Symantec (SYMC), McAfee (MFE), and Zone Labs (CHKP) have helped a bit by bundling their products into security suites that provide antivirus, antispyware, and antispam software, a firewall, and parental controls for the Web. But the components don't act like a single program. And the software keeps peppering users with incomprehensible challenges such as "Windows Generic Host Server wants to access the Internet. Allow/Block."

Security vendors are working to make safe computing easier. A startup called TrustELI has a novel offering that manages your security on the router that connects your home network to the Internet, not on the PCs themselves. You buy the wireless router for $200, subscribe to a $10-a-month service, and follow some simple steps to configure the network. TrustELI then takes over management, including the installation of software updates on the router.

THE ADVANTAGE OF THIS APPROACH is that it is completely invisible to the user, but it has some drawbacks. Because the security is on the network rather than individual PCs, a laptop could pick up a worm if it is used on another network, say, at school, then infect other machines from inside when reconnected to the home network. Running the built-in Windows XP firewall on each PC provides a measure of protection, but some "malware" can get around it. More troublesome, the TrustELI approach requires that any Web content filtering apply to all computers on the network; if you don't want the kids to see the online Victoria's Secret catalog, you don't get to either. TrustELI says it plans to add user-specific filtering in an update.

Net service providers are also moving to make computer security management a bit easier for their customers. Earthlink (ELNK) provides subscribers with the Protection Control Center (available to nonsubscribers for $5 a month), while America Online (TWX) offers the Safety and Security Center. Both provide a single screen that lets you manage all the security applications and helps make sure that computers are properly set up for automatic updates, a vital step. But behind the pretty faces lie the same old programs. AOL, for example, repackages programs from McAfee. And one of the first things it does when you install it is try to sell an "upgraded" firewall for $3.95 a month.

Security vendors are moving toward deeper integration and, with luck, smarter software that needs less user intervention. This summer, Symantec plans to release a new integrated security application and service. Code-named Genesis, it is designed, among other things, to monitor your system to ensure that your security configuration is correct.

The wild card in the consumer security field is Microsoft (MSFT). The company has announced that its antispyware product, which has been renamed Windows Defender, will be built into the Vista version of Windows due this fall. But in June, Microsoft also will offer an integrated security service called OneCare for Windows XP and, later, for Vista. If nothing else, Microsoft's entry will shake up pricing in the industry. It will charge $49.95 a year for use on up to three computers in a home, about what Symantec charges for a single PC.

Steps to make security software simpler and to integrate it more effectively are welcome, but the industry has to improve its products so that the nontechnical consumer won't be required to make highly technical decisions. Otherwise, the bad guys will likely stay ahead in the race.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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