Analysis: Trial Balloons Continue on Anti-Virus
- By Scott Bekker
Microsoft released another trial balloon in the last week over
what it should do with its anti-virus technology.
Speaking to a group of reporters, Microsoft's corporate vice president
for the security business and technology unit, Mike Nash, said
Microsoft will probably sell its own anti-virus solution.
Nash was talking about Microsoft's year-old acquisition of Romanian
anti-virus company GeCAD Software Srl. At the time of the acquisition
in 2003, Microsoft said publicly that it hadn't decided precisely how
to use GeCAD's assets. But it floated trial balloons then that it
would create its own low-cost, anti-virus solution and possibly
integrate the technology into the "Longhorn" Windows release. With
a 2006 tentative release date, Longhorn still is a piece of software
so far off that any feature can be put on or taken off the table.
Microsoft basically has four choices. None is particularly good.
Microsoft's initial approach has been to use the GeCAD assets to
improve hooks for A-V vendors in the marketplace and develop Windows
and Office to be less prone to virus attacks. This is the approach
the anti-virus vendors would like to see most, as it preserves their
market. The biggest problem with the approach is that it does little
to counter one of the strongest security arguments against Microsoft.
Critics say that Microsoft's monopoly obligates the software giant to
take responsibility for the threats its ubiquitous platform poses.
On anti-virus, this means Microsoft bears some responsibility for
naïve or cheap Windows users who don't subscribe to anti-virus
software, allow their systems to become compromised and
then serve as launching pads for Internet-based attacks.
That argument leads to another option -- Microsoft could bundle an
anti-virus solution for free with Windows. It seems like a no-brainer.
Every user who is up to date on the latest version of Windows is
automatically protected against viruses. In theory, no user action
would ever be required to get some virus protection. Antitrust red
flags are all over this option, however. In its current settlement
mode, Microsoft is unlikely to want to unintentionally crush a number
of mature anti-virus firms and bring regulatory attention down
The other problem with this approach is more subtle. Even if
regulators are understanding of Microsoft's awkward position here,
it's still likely to hurt us all. Microsoft's anti-virus software
is not going to be the best. Microsoft has not proven to be
blindingly fast in answering security threats. The company's
security responses are measured in days, sometimes months.
Anti-virus vendors put up new virus signatures in hours.
Microsoft may, I repeat, may, become that good someday, but
dedicated anti-virus vendors will remain quicker for a long time.
Nonetheless, a free product that is perceived as close to good enough
will wipe the mature anti-virus vendors out of the consumer space and
narrow the choices in the corporate market as well. And once that
market dries up, the incentive for Microsoft to improve or even
maintain its virus response time evaporates.
Many of the same problems apply to the decision Microsoft is leaning
toward -- a low-cost anti-virus solution. But this may be the least
bad option, because it could drive down the cost of using anti-virus
software. This is an admittedly ironic argument, since it is built on
Microsoft abusing its own monopoly with Windows to offer anti-virus
software at predatory prices. Nonetheless, if anti-virus software
costs $9.99, $19.99 or $29.99 rather than $49.99, more users might
subscribe and save us all from their zombie machines. Charging less
means Microsoft's software doesn't have to be as good, but it still
has to be good enough for people to pay something for. That gives
Microsoft incentive to put effort into it. At the same time, it gives the competition options -- either lower prices to compete or provide a product so much better that it's worth $10 or $15 more.
There is, of course, one other option. Microsoft can offer its own
anti-virus product at a similar price point to other products.
There is no reason for Microsoft to match competitors' prices. The
cheap shot is to say that it would force Microsoft to compete on
the merits, so the product would die a quick death. A fairer
assessment takes into account the fact that Microsoft obviously
has no desire to get into the virus protection market. The company
feels cornered into offering some solution to the massive problem
of users who don't protect themselves. Offering a solution at the same
price as the competition would do nothing to get more users
subscribed to virus protection solutions.
The difficulty of the issues facing Microsoft has got to be a
big reason the company is taking such a long time coming out with a
strong public stance on the question. What do you think Microsoft
should do? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.