Executives from Microsoft's security group demonstrated some of the latest security features planned for the next major Windows XP software update, known as Service Pack 2.
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Executives also faced persistent questions from customers about whether the latest features will interfere with other security technology.
Speaking at the company's monthly Executive Circle webcast, Mike Nash, corporate vice-president of the Security Business and Technology Unit (SBTU) showed off features to simplify the management of security technology like anti-virus and desktop firewalls, and to protect users from malicious e-mail attachments.
Nash also summoned other security group executives to talk about the company's plans and to field questions from customers curious about whether the latest version of XP will interfere with network and desktop security products that are already being used.
Rebecca Norlander, group manager for the SBTU, confirmed that a second test version of Service Pack 2, known as Release Candidate 2 (RC2) will be released in May, and that the final version of XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) is still on schedule for the first half of the year. More release candidates are possible after the RC2 release, depending on customer feedback, Norlander added.
The XP SP2 includes a Windows Security Centre, which consolidates security configuration information, and displayed features in the Outlook e-mail client that will strip out malicious attachments or warn users when unknown and potentially harmful programs are trying to run.
When asked whether the Windows Firewall will work with common third-party firewalls such as those by Network Associates and Zone Alarm, Norlander said that Microsoft was working hard on compatibility testing, but added that ultimately it is up to customers to make the Windows Firewall run alongside another firewall product.
Microsoft encouraged all XP customers to run the latest version of the Windows Firewall so they can benefit from boot time security, a new feature in XP SP2 that protects Windows systems from attack while they are booting, she said.
Customers who encounter compatibility problems between the Windows firewalls and other firewalls should report them to Microsoft and to the firewall suppliers.
Microsoft added that the company expected around 70% of commercial anti-virus products to be recognised by Windows XP SP2 and to appear in the Security Centre management interface when XP SP2 is released.
Nash said that companies should understand what security features are in Windows XP SP2 and to "evaluate your security products to see what's right for your environment". Microsoft is working to make Windows interact with and manage a variety of third-party products.
Microsoft will be holding training courses to discuss the impact of XP SP2 on existing applications and help making software applications compatible with the latest version of XP with developers and large software suppliers.
Nash encouraged Microsoft customers to download and test the first test release of Windows XP SP2, and to report any problems they encounter to the company.
Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service