Its common that the sticker price on a product or service isnt the complete story. I just bought a minivan, and when it was all over, I had spent a few thousand more than I had anticipated. It was all stuff that I decided I wanted and, the price is fair—but the numbers can add up. Software purchases can follow this sort of upward spiral, too.
A reader recently e-mailed me to complain about the high cost of antivirus subscriptions. He has six computers and has legitimate copies of antivirus and personal firewalls and subscriptions for all of them. He says that the subscription costs have risen to about $150 per year.
Thats pretty steep. I made some calls: As far as I can tell, none of the major antivirus/personal firewall companies give a break for users with this number of systems, and thats unfair. In fact, if Im not mistaken, most of the major companies have been increasing their subscription costs over the past few years. And its obviously something theyre not proud of, since they make it almost impossible to look up the resubscription costs on their Web sites. You dont find out until your subscription is about to run out and you get the bill.
I think I know what a lot of people would do in this situation: Since antivirus and personal firewalls dont have any kind of copy-protection, they would make do with one copy and use it on more than one system. Besides being wrong, this option will begin to recede when the 2004 versions of Symantec utilities roll out digital rights management (a more modern and snazzy-sounding name for copy protection) in all editions.
What legal and worthwhile options are there? The first that comes to mind is Grisoft AVG Free Edition and AVG Professional Single Edition. The Free Edition is gratis, as are updates and definitions, but only under some pretty strict rules: The more advanced features of the program are removed (although they arent critical to antivirus protection); there is no technical support; its only available in English; and it cannot be installed on servers—or in any networked environment.
I wrote a PC Magazine Personal Antivirus review a couple years ago that included AVG Free, and the results werent pretty. I did say that you were far better off running AVG Free than nothing, but that all of the pay products had better results. More thorough and recent results can be found at Virus Bulletin, and they show a good result for the most recent test, preceded by a lot of failures.
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Virus Subscription Inflation
If you do have a networked environment, then you might be wise to get network-based protection. Most professional network-based antivirus systems and firewalls are very expensive, since they are aimed at large businesses, and everyone seems to agree that businesses should pay more. (Why? I dont know) I use WinProxy from Ositis Software. Its a firewall and network-based antivirus engine in one. Users can get content filtering for a pricier subscription; and (as the name implies) its a proxy server.
One reason Im a paying customer is that its the only product Ive found that offers affordable network-based protection for both. I also like the fact that the company doesnt hide its subscription costs, and why should it? At $10 per user per year, its a comparative bargain, and you can cut that to $8 per year by signing up for two years. Unfortunately, Ositis recently switched from using Trends scanner to Pandas, and it hasnt been the same. For the two or three years I used Trend, there were at most two viruses that got through Winproxy to my desktop scanners, but Ive had many since the move to Panda.
Finally, as I predicted prematurely many years ago, some ISPs are beginning to offer antivirus protection on the entire connection. My own ISP, Speakeasy.Net, offers antivirus and spam filtering using AmikaGuardian, which actually uses the Command Software scanner. In theory this is the best way to protect most users, since almost all infections happen through the Internet connection, and its easier to keep a relatively small number of ISPs up-to-date than millions of users. But so far my results with AmikaGuardian have been dreadful: Since June 1, it has reported fewer than 10 viruses to me, and more than 100 have been trapped by my network and antivirus scanners. I couldnt recommend anyone rely on this protection.
Best practices would indicate that even if you have network- or ISP-based protection, you still should run a desktop scanner, both because something could get through the first line of defense and because you should have some redundancy. This can be a serious matter, since even some very old viruses (such as Funlove) continue to spread because they use network shares to propagate. Once a client becomes infected—perhaps with a CD brought from home or a notebook taken on the road—its a ticking timebomb. If you run both, you should get them from different vendors. This is a great technical solution, but it doesnt solve the problem of the guy whos paying too much; it just makes matters worse.
The real solution is that personal-security software vendors need to start giving price breaks for even small volumes. Now that they will be including DRM, as I assume all the major vendors will follow Symantecs lead eventually, sticking with their current pricing scheme is sticking it to the customer.
Security Supersite Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.