Viruses. Worms. Creepy, crawly things nobody likes to worry about, and certainly not in the virtual world. Nevertheless, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) at a security conference yesterday addressed those concerns by discussing a string of "active protection" initiatives to make its products safer. It makes sense that all eyes would be on the technology giant's security plans, considering its recent rep as needing a security boost.

Bill Gates exhibited an upcoming Windows XP Service Pack (due out later this year) that includes security-friendly features where users can check their antivirus software and whether they have applied all critical patches. In addition, firewalls will be part of default installation.

Microsoft's deal with RSA Security (NASDAQ:RSAS) will enhance security past the usual username and password system, stepping it up to include a keychain-like device, requiring authorized personnel to enter a code that changes on a minute-by-minute basis. Also, there's a proposed "caller ID for email" to combat spam. Such a function is something many of us non-techie folks can relate to. I use caller ID to screen out anything that looks like a telemarketer, and I'm addicted to knowing who's on the phone before I answer. It addresses spam as one of the highest-profile issues around, but it's probably still a ways off.

When I asked Fool chief security goon Joshua Brown for his opinion on these initiatives, he called them an improvement and steps in the right direction. However, while Gates said things are improving judging by "only" nine critical vulnerabilities in the first 300 days of Windows Server 2003, Brown pointed out that maybe we should see those as nine too many, arguing that too many problems still make it into production. (And judging by the last few years, many Windows users who downloaded what may have felt like endless patches know that there were a heck of a lot of vulnerabilities associated with XP.)

Microsoft has begun addressing steps to bolster security -- and ease the minds of its customers. That's good, since it needs to defend its majority market share, which most statistics put at 92%, with Linux and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) nibbling at the rest. Keeping itself in good graces is crucial right now to avoid any migration to other operating systems and keep customers open to the next generation of Windows, Longhorn, which launches in 2006.

In his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, William Gibson's view of the future included microsoft as a noun. Microsoft's not that pervasive now, but it's pretty darn close. Go where it really is all things Microsoft -- the Fool's Microsoft discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned.