Microsoft's festive advice: Don't plug our PCs into the Web

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Its slogan is "where do you want to go today?" But Microsoft asks that if you get a Windows computer for Christmas,don't take it to one particular place: the internet.

At least, the company says, not until you've been to the shops again to buy extra software, and protected the system from the deluge of viruses and worms that target the flaws in Microsoft's software as soon as you take it online.

The warning came as anti-virus companies said 2003 was the worst year ever for viruses attacking Windows, with two "global" outbreaks which were the biggest in the history of the internet.

And now a new Windows virus, called Sober, is spreading fast in Germany and Europe. It turns personal computers into mass-mailing machines that can be used by spammers to send messages, and spreads the virus to anyone in the machine's address book.

Microsoft's advice features in a new page on - inevitably - its website, entitled "Protect New PCs Before Connecting to the Internet".

Anyone who manages to go online to read it without being infected will find the company warning users to obtain anti-virus software, and turn on a protection system called a "firewall" (which new versions of Windows include, yet the company leaves turned off) before they venture online.

But as Simon Moores, an internet consultant, pointed out yesterday, the software giant's admonitions "place the world in a catch-22: you can't be sure that it's safe to go online unless you connect to the internet and get a huge file of security updates from Microsoft, and new anti-virus files - which are also only available online".