On June 23, Microsoft will release a beta version of Microsoft Security Essentials, the free antivirus program that is replacing Windows Live OneCare.

Microsoft is now allowing journalists to write about the new program so a flurry of stories appeared today from people who have been testing it for the last month. All the news is good. Microsoft Security Essentials is a small download (4-5Mb for Vista), it provides excellent protection, and it has virtually no impact on system performance, even on underpowered computers. It is reportedly designed to disappear completely (not even an icon in Windows 7), with no notices or interaction required unless there is a problem. Updates are provided overnight through the Automatic Updates system, plus three times a day for virus definitions, plus additional updates essentially in real time if new threats are detected.

Think of MSE as the antivirus part of OneCare but none of the other things. It doesn’t take over the firewall or do backups or push out shared printers, all things that Vista can do without help. It also doesn’t have any management capabilities at all – no “circle” of computers like OneCare and no central management for businesses running servers.

The beta will be available to 75,000 testers initially, with full availability before the end of the year. There will be no personal information required to download the software – no Windows Live ID, no email address, just a licensed copy of Windows.

Since the antivirus protection is based on the same engine as OneCare (as well as Microsoft’s corporate Forefront security suite), people will squabble about how effective it is. Here are Ed Bott’s comments:

How good is the coverage? Microsoft scored dismal test results in the early days of OneCare, hitting a nadir in 2007, but its record has improved dramatically since. A new study (May 2009) by the independent AV-Comparatives group gave Microsoft OneCare (which shares the same engine and signatures as MSE) its highest (Advanced+) rating. Only 3 of the 16 products in the test earned that rating. Microsoft’s technology scored second in the accuracy ratings, behind AVIRA but ahead of AVG, Symantec, McAfee, and a dozen other products. And on the crucial measure of delivering the fewest false positives, Microsoft stood far ahead of the pack, delivering the fewest false positives of any program tested.

I want to avoid confusing anyone. You don’t have to install this software. You don’t have to stop using Windows Live OneCare or any other software that you currently have installed. Microsoft Security Essentials is a new  product being tested. We’ll talk more about it when it is a finished product. If you don’t have antivirus software or you have a subscription coming up for renewal, we should talk about this. Otherwise, rest easy and wait for more information!

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