Microsoft has outlined the first concrete details of its entry into the anti-virus market.

Microsoft Client Protection will be released in beta by the end of the year and will combine both anti-spyware and anti-virus. It will be followed in 2006 by a beta version of a new anti-virus product for Microsoft Exchange.

"What we're going to be announcing is a single integrated security solution for business customers that will provide protection against the latest spyware and virus threats," Scott Stanzel, senior product manager, said. "This client protection technology will be a solution that businesses can use, and it will offer them central manageability."

Client Protection will be built upon the GeCAD anti-virus software Microsoft acquired in 2003, as well as the Giant anti-spyware product it picked up in 2004.

The software will have a different interface from the two earlier products that will allow business customers to manage the security of networks of machines from a central point. "Microsoft Client Protection will have very rich reporting about your environment, reporting about what machines on your system are up to date, where you have weaknesses and where things need to be better secured," Stanzel said.

Microsoft will discuss the new product today in Munich, where CEO Steve Ballmer and security VP Mike Nash are giving speeches on the company's security roadmap.

According to Stanzel, only select customers will be able to try out the software this year. Microsoft is still not saying when it expects to ship a follow-up version, or when it expects to ship a final, commercial product.

So for the time being, customers wondering how to plan for Microsoft's corporate security products will just have to wait, said Michael Cherry a Windows analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "We still really don't know the timeframe for when they're going to be delivered," he said. "The big question in my mind is: what is the real roadmap?"

Ballmer has today also outlined a new security consortium, called the SecureIT Alliance, focused on developing security for the Microsoft platform.

The 30-company alliance includes Verisign, Trend Micro and Symantec, and will work on security related developer programs, best practices, white papers and security product information.

It is nearly four years since Bill Gates issued his famous memo calling on his company to make to make "trustworthy computing" its highest priority. And although Microsoft may still be slow to patch known vulnerabilities, it is now an industry leader when it comes to security, some observers say.

The company is more responsive and more security-minded than many other software companies, said Marc Maiffret, chief hacking officer with eEye Digital Security. "Not to say that Microsoft is perfect, but ... they definitely shine compared to the other guys out there," he said. "I think they're going down the right path. They're definitely improving security."