In the wake of this month's barrage of nuisance viruses and internet worms, Microsoft yesterday announced it is weighing up options to get more users to secure their computers, including automatically applying security patches to PCs remotely.

"We are looking at a range of options to get critical updates on more systems, from finding ways to encourage more people to keep their systems up- to-date themselves to where it is done automatically by default for certain users," said Microsoft?s Windows senior product manager Matt Pilla.

Microsoft does not plan any immediate changes to the way it delivers security patches, but nor does it intend to wait until the release of its next operating system to improve it, said Pilla.

"This is a priority for us. I think there are a lot of things we can do during the Windows XP time frame to help people make their PCs more secure," he said. The successor to Windows XP, codenamed Longhorn, is expected to be out in 2005 or 2006.

Microsoft currently delivers software patches through its Windows update website and through update software in Windows XP, 2000 and Me. The software does not download and install patches by default. Instead it asks a user to select from various options, including sending alerts when an update is available.

"Giving the user the ability to control auto-updates is important to us," Pilla said. "One of the things we are working on is a balance between keeping systems up-to-date and giving users control over their systems."

Microsoft has no choice. It has to take patching in its own hands, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at research group Enderle. "They absolutely have to create a programme where patches are applied automatically," he said.

People worried about giving Microsoft control over their systems should weigh up the alternative, Enderle said. "People really don't want to give Microsoft access, but if they don't then the patches don't get applied timely. It is about relatives. Do