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To many people, the words “Microsoft” and “security” go together like McDonald’s and health food.

With the consumer beta release last week of Microsoft’s new PC-based security service, OneCare, the software giant hopes to change that image.

Microsoft’s OneCare is a subscription service that includes anti-virus and anti-spyware tools, regularly and automatically updated online, plus a two-way firewall. The service also helps subscribers back up their data more easily, and offers tools to help them clean up unnecessary files cluttering a hard disk.

Microsoft announced plans for the service in mid-May, when employees began testing it. Then, in late July, the company went into a “managed external beta,” meaning it will select several thousand consumers to try out the service. Company officials would not comment on when they plan to launch OneCare to the general public, or how it will be priced.

It’s no secret that Microsoft has been making more of a play in computer security lately, typified by Chairman Bill Gates’ keynote address at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco in February. And in June the company acquired Sybari, a Long Island, NY-based security software developer. Unlike Sybari, which makes products largely for the corporate server market and is being kept separate for now, Microsoft OneCare is intended for any and all PC users.

Indeed, OneCare is intended for computer users who lack the knowledge or inclination to do regular tune-ups on their own systems, yet who are increasingly concerned about the threat of viruses and annoyed with slow hard drives and lost data.

“The dynamic nature of the Internet and technology can make the protection, maintenance, and optimal performance of PCs a challenge for consumers,” says Samantha McManus, a business strategy manager for Microsoft. She also takes aim at the existing software security industry: “Consumers need a simpler, more comprehensive solution to keep their PCs ‘healthy’ and running well compared to what the traditional security marketplace has been able to provide to date.”

Despite the onslaught of computer viruses and spyware – which can spread so insidiously that many users are unaware of their existence on their systems – “the vast majority of consumers today are using PCs without basic protection technologies, such as anti-virus, anti-spyware or a firewall,” says McManus, “or if they have these protections, [they] are not keeping them up to date.” 

Furthermore, by not performing routine maintenance tasks, like disk defragmentation, many PC users also risk losing important files or images, or, at the least, having to cope with underperforming systems.

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