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RSA 2005 Information security concerns have prompted Microsoft to release a new version of Internet Explorer before the next version of Windows ships. Contrary to previous plans, Microsoft will release IE7 as a beta in "early summer" 2005. Longhorn, the next iteration of Windows, isdue late next year.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates today said IE7 will offer Windows XP SP2 advances in defending against phishing and malware but failed to go into any details. IE7 will also be included in Longhorn but its availability on other platforms remains unclear.

In a keynote address at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, Gates singled out spyware and social engineering such as phishing and spyware attacks as the "fastest growing challenge".

"There's no exploit involved," he said. "Social engineering attacks take the privilege of a user and fool them into running code they don't want to run."

Microsoft has decided to make its Windows Anti-Spyware, released as a beta earlier this year and downloaded by 5m users, available at no extra charge to licensed Windows users, Gates announced. Microsoft also intends to introduce a consumer-focused anti-virus product by the end of the year.

Gates repeatedly highlighted information security as a "top priority" for Microsoft. "It's the one thing we need to make sure that we get absolutely right to deliver the digital revolution," he said. Microsoft is spending $2bn of its $6bn research and development budget on security.

Windows XP SP2 is a key building block in Microsoft's efforts to make its software more resistant to attack. More than 170m users have downloaded the product since its release late last year, Gates said. More users have applied the update after obtaining it on a CD. To make it easier for customers to apply patches, Microsoft intends to bring its separate Office and Windows Update services under one umbrella from March 2005. This service will be aimed at consumers and small businesses.

Gates appeared relaxed during his 45-minute keynote as RSA, even cracking a decent joke. He produced a spoofed version of doodles he made at the recent World Economic Forum, which were mistaken by a UK paper for the jottings of Prime Minister Tony Blair. The spoof notes contained remarks such as "Why does Bill Clinton sit next to Angelina Jolie?" "Need cheeseburger" (a reference perhaps to Gates' expanding waistline) and his "password". ®

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