This article appears in the February 06 issue of PC Advisor, available in all good newsagents

Connect an unprotected Windows-based PC to the internet and it will, on average, attract some form of unwelcome advance within 23 minutes. That figure, recently published by the SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center, reveals a troubling issue. In less time than it takes to download and install all the various fixes and patches to secure Windows, your PC can fall victim to a malicious worm, virus, or other form of malware. It's an internet-era Catch-22.

There's little doubt Microsoft is the biggest target. Its ubiquitous software is an easy target. Just ask the folks at the Mozilla Foundation who created the Firefox browser what it is to be popular. Even as downloads of the open-source browser skyrocketed, developers have been forced to issue patches to fix security vulnerabilities.Still, Microsoft makes the software that a majority of computer users run. Has it made strides in protecting its flagship operating system against what seems to be an unending parade of attacks? For the average user, the answer is a conditional ‘yes', but there's still a long way to go.

Patch it up

Back in August 2004, Microsoft took a huge step toward securing Windows when it released SP2 for Windows XP. Unlike other service packs, which added features, fixed bugs and tweaked functionality, SP2 focused primarily on security. But it did so at a cost, rendering some apps and utilities inoperable.

Many old holes may be fixed, but hard-working malware writers continue to cook up ways to threaten systems. In August 2005, Microsoft released six security updates - including three addressing critical flaws in Internet Explorer and embedded Windows services. One of those flaws gave an opening to the Zotob exploit, which ranks as one of the worst malware attacks of 2005. At first it was thought the attack was limited to Windows 2000, but Microsoft eventually said Windows XP users were also vulnerable.

Windows security: act 2

The next version of Windows, Vista, should take security even further. For instance, an improved Windows Firewall will offer application-aware outbound filtering, so that you can see and control the apps attempting to forge connections over the network. An underlying technology called Windows Service Hardening should also help limit the potential reach of malicious code.

Expected to ship toward the end of 2006, Microsoft says Windows Vista will also include a feature called Secure Startup, which uses an onboard chip to prevent hackers from accessing data on a machine that has been stolen or physically compromised. The chip, called the TPM (trusted platform module), stores encryption keys, passwords and digital certificates that allow for encrypted data and system integrity monitoring prior to bootup. Not all computers come with TPM, so at the moment it remains unclear how effective this measure will be.

Getting the message

Microsoft has clearly got the message: security in an always-networked world must be an absolute priority. The problem is, Windows is so vast that securing the operating system is taking Microsoft years.

In the meantime, the onus lies on end users to ensure their systems remain safe and secure. Microsoft is trying admirably to help. Its Security home page is a gateway to loads of information for keeping the bad guys out.

It's easy to bash Microsoft for the flaws in its software. And over the years the company has deserved much of the criticism it's endured. But the fact of the matter is, Windows has grown better and more secure in the past 12 months, even if it's still quite a way from becoming perfect. For a secure future, we can only hope Gates and Co stay the course.