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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Microsoft's bid for secure computing
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, AP
Microsoft is working on ways to lock up computers
Microsoft is embarking on an ambitious project to fundamentally change the internal workings of the PC.

This week, it unveiled the Palladium project, which will see the creation of a virtual vault in the Windows operating system to confront issues of security, copyright and privacy.

Palladium is one of the biggest projects Microsoft has undertaken and some experts argue it will have to work hard to convince the industry it can be a leader in secure software.

Some computer scientists and industry experts see Palladium as the start of an initiative to control everything that people can do with their home computer.

Free bugs

Palladium is one of the first results of Bill Gates' declaration in February that Microsoft must put security at the heart of everything it does.

The memo was criticised by many technology experts who said it missed the point that many serious security problems suffered by users were due to bad Microsoft programming.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at research firm IDC, believes Palladium is vital for Microsoft to improve its standing as a seller of trustworthy technology.


Software is a bit like making sausages. People want to enjoy it but they don't really want to know what went into it

Dan Kusnetzky, IDC
"It has been under such concerted attack, not necessarily because it makes bad software but because it is the market leader and breaking into Microsoft's system attracts attention," he said.

"Palladium is an attempt to get its house in order but I think it has a big challenge to convince people that they are the market leader in secure software," he said.

Palladium could result in a version of Windows so far removed from the versions we have today that it will be unrecognisable, said Mr Kusnetzky.

"There has always been a compromise between ease of use and security," he said. "In the past, Microsoft has gone for the idea that it must be easy to use but it is slowly moving the balance towards security," he said.

In an effort to gain trust, Microsoft will be publishing some of the source code for Palladium.

Cleaning Windows

Proponents of open source operating systems have always argued that such systems are inherently more secure because they have a larger number of people involved in shaping the code and spotting vulnerabilities.

Microsoft's openness about Palladium will be a very different proposition, pointed out Mr Kusnetzky.

"It will offer shared source code but under tight restriction. People can look but they can't change it," he said.

Compact disc close-up, BBC
Palladium could make it harder to burn your own CDs
The technology behind Palladium, born out of earlier work by its engineers to deliver pirate-proof digital movies, is not expected to be available for several years.

Respected computer scientist Ross Anderson has compiled a background document tracing the history of Palladium and speculating on the consequences of its widespread use.

Rather than a technology for improving security, Mr Anderson sees Palladium as a way for Microsoft to exert more control over what people do with their computers.

Inside every computer built to the Palladium specifications will be a chip or black box that will check what a PC is doing and only let it run the programs and open the files it considers to be trusted.

The long-term vision is to have it embedded not just in PCs but in all kinds of devices to secure services not yet invented.

Because of the huge undertaking, Microsoft is going into Palladium in partnership with chipmakers Intel and AMD, who will be producing a new class of chips differentiated not by speed but by security.

Software like sausages

The next step will be to persuade PC makers to build Palladium into the machines they sell.

Microsoft's Product Manager Mario Juarez told Newsweek magazine that it would have to sell 100 million Palladium-enabled devices for the technology to make its mark.

However, with 92% of the world's desktop computers already using the Windows operating systems, it could take a bigger sea-change to convince the world to adopt the technology.

"There is a very large install base of older systems that people are happy enough with," said Mr Kusnetzky. "Microsoft will still be exposed to embarrassing attacks on already installed operating systems."

Changes in coding might not be enough to convince users to make the swap.

"Software is a bit like making sausages. People want to enjoy it but they don't really want to know what went into it."

See also:

19 Jun 02 | Business
12 Jun 02 | Business
27 May 02 | Science/Nature
17 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
21 Dec 01 | Science/Nature
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