How will Bill Gates' antivirus cliffhanger play out?

Will he or won't he? The suspense over whether Bill Gates will take the wraps off a Microsoft antivirus product at RSA's security conference this month is building to a crescendo.

All right, so it's mostly the media that are getting lathered up about this, but there are others with

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 a keen interest in what Microsoft's co-founder has up his signature-sweater sleeve. Despite their practiced nonchalance about a giant entering their turf, AV vendors have to be feeling a little anxious these days. After all, Microsoft has already come up with antispyware and a malware removal tool that hits perilously close to their sweet spot.

AV vendors may not have much to fear, however, thanks in part to the long arm of the (antitrust) law. Bundling software with Windows is now dangerous territory for Redmond, and just last weekend an MSN executive told a Harvard audience that his company planned to be careful not to run afoul of the government with its new desktop search tool by tying it too closely to Windows. In addition, Microsoft has said in the past that any future AV offering would likely be a standalone product, although it has said precious little on the subject since it acquired Romanian AV maker GeCAD in 2003.

All this circumstantial evidence suggests that a Microsoft AV product that isn't free would just be a new kid on the block in an established field. To make a go of it, Redmond would have to dazzle consumer and enterprise customers with something they can't get right now. That seems highly unlikely, but we may have a better idea on Feb. 15, when Gates hits the stage at the RSA show.

Elsewhere in the news …

While an AV announcement at RSA is a toss-up, it seems much more likely that Microsoft will release an enterprise version of its firewall at the event. As the name implies, Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2004 Enterprise Edition, is aimed at really big companies. Its main selling points are integrated support for network load balancing, support for Web proxy arrays using the Cash Array Routing Protocol and a single point of management for multiple firewalls. … Jeffrey Lee Parson will have 18 months to ponder the stupidity of his reckless behavior in unleashing a variant of a Blaster worm in 2003. Parson, now 19, was sentenced this week to the prison term, to be followed by 10 months of community service. The young Minnesotan learned the hard way that someone was going to be made an example of. … Do you Yahoo? Not anymore, Microsoft says. After two years of development, Redmond this week unveiled a search engine powered by its own technology. Until now, Microsoft licensed Yahoo's search engine. … Microsoft is getting tighter with Dell, though. This week, Microsoft released a free tool designed to better integrate its desktop management software with Dell's PowerEdge servers. … Microsoft's storage business unit is in store for a new boss. Corporate vice president Yuval Neeman left the company after 16 years of service. A replacement has not yet been named. … Wired News this week reported a phenomenon that has Microsoft executives puzzled and perturbed. It seems that a large number of workers at the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters are walking around sporting iPods, even though Microsoft makes digital media software that powers devices that compete against Apple's wildly popular gadget.

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