MS AntiSpyware Beta Shows Promise, Problems

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-01-11 Print this article Print

Review: It's heartening to see Microsoft addressing the spyware problem, but this first version, a relabeling of a product the company bought, needs some work before they sell it.

Just a few months ago Bill Gates declared that Microsoft would do something about the spyware/adware problem. And the company wasted no time. In December it bought Giant Company Software. Giant wasnt an especially well-known company, but its product was well-regarded. Now, just one month later we have a free initial beta version of a Microsoft AntiSpyware product. For a first beta of a first version of a Microsoft product, its a fabulous product. Of course, that would be a misleading description. Its as good as it is because Microsoft paid for a product with a good deal of development already behind it, and as a result they can go to market with a respectable solution. For now, anyone can download it for free from Microsofts Web site. The company has not said what the eventual pricing or distribution scheme will be, but we have also reported that they are planning a subscription service for updates.

This initial product is a simple repackaging of the Giant client and has no network manageability features that one might expect from a more mature Microsoft product. It does have a very simple installer. The default decisions are generally reasonable, although there are some strange behaviors. First, the program scans the system after the initial installation, but doesnt update itself first, so the initial scan is performed on old definitions.

Along the same lines, the installer defaults to setting the system up to scan at 2 a.m. and update itself at 3 a.m. Clearly, switching these times would be more effective. The scheduler is integrated with the program, not the standard Windows Scheduled Tasks facility, making it harder to tell what conflicts there might be with other tasks. Users also have the option of joining "SpyNet," which appears to be simply a feature whereby the program reports back to Microsoft what threats it finds on your system.

I tested the MS AntiSpyware beta on three different systems and specifically sought out adware to test with. I had mixed results with both the real-time protection and the static scanner. For instance, I was able to download and install PurityScan, a well-known source of adware, without complaint from the program. Once I ran PurityScan, MS AntiSpyware complained that it attempted to install a Run key in the registry to execute itself at startup and to install a BHO (browser helper object, a plug-in to Internet Explorer). I chose to block both of these attempts.

Next Page: Anti-spyware vs. anti-virus.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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