Microsoft is asking consumers to test the latest beta version of its Windows OneCare Live security service. The move follows beta trials involving a number of invited users.

Microsoft warned that if demand for the service is too high, it may still restrict entry so as to maintain the quality of the service. Anyone refused access to the service in this way will be put on a waiting list, the company said in a posting to the OneCare Live development team's blog.

OneCare Live is intended to protect PCs running Windows XP from viruses and hackers, and to keep important documents backed up. The software client which runs the service will automatically download updates to deal with new Internet threats, Microsoft said on the OneCare blog.

The beta version of the software is free, but Microsoft will charge for the finished service, including access to software updates, it said. It gave no indication of when the finished version will be ready and the transition to paid service will take place.

Recent versions of the beta software add a number of features requested by early testers, the company said. Among them are the ability to back up data to external hard disk drives; automatic scanning of files received through the MSN Messenger service, and integration with the usual delivery mechanism for security patches, Microsoft Update. Microsoft has also updated the OneCare help files and added assistance for removing other software that conflicts with OneCare, it said.

Some users like to run several anti-virus tools concurrently to increase the level of protection, especially when one of the tools is only a beta version. However, Microsoft warned that using two such tools to automatically scan the computer could cause problems, and that only one automatic scanning tool should be enabled at a time.

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If testers are to put the beta version of OneCare through its paces, this would force them to put all their trust in it. However, this does not present a disproportionate risk, according to Graham Titterington, an analyst with Ovum.

"The beta test product is pretty well tested - this is the final phase in the pre-production part of the lifecycle. Of course there are risks of remaining vulnerabilities, but then we know there are vulnerabilities in every product that is on the market. The risks are not disproportionate," he said.

When Microsoft launches the full version of the OneCare service, it may set off a wave of mergers among subscription-based anti-virus and security services, according to Titterington. Symantec has succeeded in reducing its dependency on security products by merging with storage software vendor Veritas Software, but smaller anti-virus software vendors have fewer options to maintain their revenue.

"Microsoft is going to take a large chunk of the market, and the other players will have to merge to the extent that each one that remains has a large enough market to achieve the economies of scale necessary to operate in this sector," said Titterington.