Over the years, Microsoft has loaded PCs with programs that have nothing to do with Windows' main function as an operating system. Riffle through the Start menu and you'll find a word processor, a painting program, calculator, Web browser, music and video player, movie maker, sound editor and, of course, a solitaire game.
Stroll through the software department in any big box retailer and you'll find more programs that Microsoft has spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, Publisher, Works and even Age of Empires (one of the game industry's great simulation-exploration titles).
But something has always been missing from the Microsoft shelf - software to protect a woefully insecure Windows from the online bandits, rapists and pillagers who make its customers miserable. We're talking about viruses, spyware, adware, spammers, keystroke loggers, phishers, hijackers and other monsters of the virtual night.
I've never understood this abdication of responsibility. But it's good to see it come to an end. Starting in June, Microsoft will get into the one business it should have been in all along - protecting the security of its operating system.
You'll have to pay extra for that protection, of course, but for once Microsoft's entry into a market is likely to increase competition, instead of eliminate it.
Traditionally, Microsoft has addressed only the most glaring security flaws with updates to Windows. It left day-to-day security to programs from third-party vendors such as Symantec, McAfee, Trend Micro, Panda and ZoneLabs.
None is perfect, but most are reasonably effective. The problem is that too many people don't use them or keep them updated. Microsoft estimates that 60 percent of PC users are at least partially at risk.
So Microsoft has come up with a subscription-based, online security service called OneCare Live. It includes a full suite of downloadable security software, combined with automatic system updates. The company has been working on the project for more than two years, and it says almost 200,000 users have been testing the "beta" version it released in 2005 (and will be available at no charge until April).
Microsoft will charge $49.95 a year for OneCare Live, which buys protection for up to three home computers - a reasonable fee for a critical service in multi-PC families.
As the new guy on the block, Microsoft is pricing itself considerably under the competition from Symantec and McAfee, which charge at least twice as much for their "three packs," although discounts and rebates narrow the gap.
McAfee offers its security suite as an online service (which Comcast and some other ISPs provide to their customers as part of their monthly fee), and Symantec plans a similar service called Genesis for the fall.
OneCare Live will include an anti-virus program, a firewall and an anti-spyware module. Microsoft includes a basic firewall as part of Windows XP, but it protects systems only against outside probes. The OneCare Live version will also keep rogue programs already installed on users computers from accessing the Internet - a feature that more sophisticated firewalls such as ZoneAlarm have offered for years.
Many users have also been testing Microsoft AntiSpyware as a stand-alone product. Packaged with OneCare Live, it will be renamed Microsoft Defender.
In addition to protection against attacks, Microsoft says OneCare Live will include an easy-to-use backup program that will copy critical data and programs to CD, DVD or an external drive, as well as tuneup software to keep a PC running smoothly.
It's hard to say how these will turn out. Microsoft is the newcomer here, and no matter how much money it spends, the competition has had a decade or two to get a jump.
Just remember that any respectable security software is better than none. And all security software has to be updated regularly. If you bought a computer over Christmas, it probably came with a third-party security program ready to install. If you haven't activated it, you should.
Most of these pre-loaded programs are 60-day trials, and they may be expiring. If you have one of these and like it, you should go online, register and pay the publishers for a one-year subscription.
If you have security software and it has expired, renew it right now or look for a new program. The current issue of PC Magazine reviews all the major security suites - with the exception of Microsoft's, which obviously isn't quite finished. An earlier review of OneCare Live is available online. Visit pcmag.com.
And, if you're feeling adventurous, you can try out the beta version of OneCare Live free of charge (beta testers will get a discounted one-year subscription to the commercial release for $19.95 when its ready).
At this point, I don't think you'll run any great risk with it - but the anti-spyware module may not be fully integrated until the end of February. Also, remember that the beta is geekspeak for "not quite ready for prime time." Visit windowsonecare.com.
Most of us in this business expend a lot of ink on digital music and video - and too much of it is hyped by our own excitement. We like it and think it's cool; ergo, it's the next big thing for everyone.
So I had to chuckle when I found an interesting item on Wirednews.com (one of my favorite sites) by confirmed skeptic Joanna Glassner.
Glassner dutifully reported industry estimates of global online digital music sales at $1.1 billion in 2005. But $400 million of that came from downloads of cell phone ring tones. That's right, almost half a billion, so kids could hear phones play "My Humps."
That left legitimate music downloaders spending about $700 million on all those album tracks for all those iPods we wrote about. Even that sounds like a lot of money, she noted - until you realize that over the same period, Americans spent $1.2 billion on cat litter.
Think about that and make up your own joke. But don't send it to me.