Microsoft teaches 'safe practice' computing on-screen

Microsoft has said it will use more dialogue boxes in future software releases to educate users on 'safe practice' computing

At the InfoSecurity show in London on Tuesday, Microsoft said it hoped that new versions of its Windows and Office products will educate customers about security through the use of dialogue boxes and warning messages, and by offering to automatically configure the user's security settings.

In January 2002, Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates launched the trustworthy computing initiative, which fundamentally changed the way that Microsoft develops software by making security its No.1 priority. In June, Microsoft will launch Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, which is designed to increase the operating system's security and make it easier for end users to control and manage their security settings.

Jonathan Perera, senior director of Microsoft's security business technology unit, which was created to head-up the Trustworthy Computing Initiative, said that users will be educated in a number of different ways, such as by providing better security information with new computers and more dialogue boxes in its software for on-the-fly training. Perera said the new dialogue boxes will appear when a user tries to do something that is not considered "safe practice", such as opening an executable attachment.

"By using dialogue boxes to educate the user, we can tell them 'you can go ahead and open this attachment, but it might not be safe,' so we are using software to educate the end user," he said.

Microsoft has attempted to "help" its users with software in the past using utilities such as the assistant used in the Office suite, which was an animated paperclip -- and more recently a dog -- that popped up with suggestions on how to improve productivity and take advantage of new features. But despite its intentions, the Office assistant is generally regarded as unhelpful and annoying.

Perera said the new dialogue boxes will not replicate the Office assistant's problems because they are designed to be friendly and intuitive: "We will find a way to do it in the most appropriate, least interruptive fashion -- to put it another way, you won't see the Outlook-type approach, probably. We are trying to make it very friendly and intuitive," he said.

Microsoft has also been working with its PC manufacturing partners to provide users with some basic security help when they first turn on their new computer. According to Perera, new PCs will come with a preloaded utility that enables the system to automatically configure its security settings.

 "Our partners will provide critical security information that consumers need to know about, such as antivirus, firewall and automatic protection -- on the opening screen. That will allow to take those steps on the users' behalf," he said.

Dialogue boxes may be Microsoft's solution to handling a potential problem pointed out earlier this month by security experts. They said that SP2 may cause a flood of technical support calls because the new default settings will mean a significant proportion of users could experience problems accessing wireless networks, games servers and even their home networks unless they can reconfigure their settings. At the time, a Microsoft executive said the company was expecting fewer support calls after SP2 because fewer people would be exposed to potential threats.