Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates pledged further commitment to help users and corporations improve their security, with special emphasis on preventing spyware and email-based malware.

In the opening keynote address at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, Gates said one-third of Microsoft's annual $6 billion research and develpment budget now goes on security.  

Since Microsoft acquired GeCAD's antivirus technology a couple of years ago, the software giant has revealed little on how it will use the technology. But with its acquisition last week of Sybari Software, which provides anti-virus for businesses, the antivirus plans have become clearer.

"The email vector continues to be the primary means of virus spread. Our belief is that we need to improve the [virus] scanning capabilities. Having a single engine to do that scan is not sufficient," he said, adding that Sybari's technology uses multiple scanning engines.

On the spyware front, Microsoft plans to include anti-spyware capability at no additional charge for Windows users, Gates said. He did not provide a timeline. Earlier this year, Microsoft released an Anti-Spyware beta based on its acquisition of Giant in December.

He said there was a "burning need for our users [to tackle spyware]", adding that there had been more than 5 million downloads of the software since its release a month ago.

The company also has developed a SpyNet Research Center, which collects data from users on threats they see. Some three million users participate in SpyNet, and Microsoft is now receiving half a million reports a day, helping it to build a database of offending sites.

Microsoft also plans to add a new level of security against spyware and malware with the next release of Internet Explorer, IE 7. A beta of the new browser would be released in early summer to run on XP Service Pack 2, Gates said. It will also be a feature of the Longhorn operating system, due for release next year.

Security problems threaten the potential of the digital infrastructure, so trustworthy computing is a top priority for Microsoft. "It's the one thing we need to make sure we get absolutely right," Gates said.

After Gates's keynote, Gregor Freund, CTO of Check Point Software and founder of Zone Labs said he was glad to see Microsoft focus on securing the desktop but added that there are "some serious downsides" to Microsoft's approach.

"Just by entering the security market, Microsoft could stall innovation by freezing any kind of spending of venture capital on Windows security, which in the long run, will lead to less security, not more," Freund said in an email statement.

"It's a better idea for Microsoft to focus on shoring up its operating system and application vulnerabilities. Microsoft's sloppy programming practices and past lack of security focus resulted in security breaches that probably have contributed to billions of dollars of damages to its customers. It is unconscionable to me that now Microsoft announces it will attempt to profit from this very neglect."