Microsoft plans to release by year's end an initial test version of a new product to protect business desktops, laptops and file servers against malicious code attacks.

The new Microsoft Client Protection product will guard against threats such as spyware, viruses and rootkits, Microsoft said Thursday. The software will offer IT administrators central management capabilities and work with Microsoft's Active Directory and Windows Server Updates Services patch management tool, the company said.

Microsoft did not say how much the new product will cost or when it will be available in final form. A "limited beta" is due out by the end of the year and Microsoft plans to share additional details on the new product in the coming months, it said in a statement.

"This is the first time that we are providing our own products that provide a complete security shield for businesses," said Debby Fry Wilson, director of security engineering and communications at Microsoft. The company will charge for Client Protection but has yet to decide how it will be delivered, she said.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant made the expected announcement at an event in Munich, Germany, where Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Mike Nash, a corporate vice president in charge of security efforts, discussed the company's security strategy and product road map at a news conference.

The company had previously said it would deliver security products for businesses, pitting it against established players such as Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro.

Microsoft on Thursday also announced the formation of the SecureIT Alliance, a new group focused on providing security products to users of Microsoft products. The alliance includes Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro, along with F-Secure and VeriSign.

"The threats we see do need more than secure software. We need active protection against spyware, malware and viruses. For the first time, with the Microsoft Client Protection, we will deliver this kind of complete security shield for businesses," Ballmer said at the Munich news conference. "I think we have leapfrogged Linux and other systems in helping customers maintain a secure environment. "

Microsoft is already testing Windows OneCare, the consumer counterpart of the newly announced Client Protection product. On Thursday, Fry Wilson said the company plans to deliver the final version of OneCare sometime next year.

In addition to its plans to secure enterprise PCs and file servers, Microsoft on Thursday said it is preparing the release of Microsoft Antigen for Exchange. The antivirus software for e-mail servers is a fruit of the company抯 acquisition of Sybari Software early this year. A test version is due in the first half of next year, Microsoft said.

Three other Microsoft-branded Antigen products will also be available in beta next year, Fry Wilson said. These are Microsoft Antigen for SMTP Gateways, Microsoft Antigen Spam Manager and Microsoft Antigen Enterprise Manager, the representative said.

Thursday's announcements show Microsoft has not put security on the back burner, but the company continues to lag in actually delivering products and in providing clear road maps, said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

"Microsoft is doing a good job of telling us the direction they are going; we just don't know when they are going to get there," Cherry said. "Even though we know that they are going to beta some stuff, we still don't know when customers are going to be able to purchase and deploy it."

Since launching its Trustworthy Computing Initiative three years ago, Microsoft has been building its security muscle.

The company has made several security-related acquisitions, including ID management company Alacris last month and hosted e-mail security provider FrontBridge in July. Analysts, however, have criticized Microsoft before for not having a clearer and more productive strategy.

"We have spent and invested two years in laying the groundwork. We are now moving into a new phase of focus where we will be offering new products and services to provide defense-in-depth technologies to help customers secure their networks and systems," Fry Wilson said.

The "groundwork," according to Fry Wilson, first and foremost was the delivery last year of Windows XP Service Pack 2, a security-focused update to the operating system. Other pieces, she said, include the beta of Windows AntiSpyware and the launch of a new patching service in June called Microsoft Update.

"We've come a very long way in a short time improving our process for monitoring and fixing security issues," Ballmer said at the Munich event. "Today I can say that we have the organization, we've got the talent, we've got the skill and the will to secure our products and your systems with an array of increasingly sophisticated protections."