Credibility at the Forefront

Opinion: Microsoft enters the anti-malware market with a home field disadvantage and plenty to prove.

Theres something different about the security market, and especially the anti-malware market. Most software markets tend to move towards consolidation, but competition is alive and well in anti-malware.

Clearly the major players are concerned about Microsofts entry into the market with their consumer-oriented OneCare service and the corporate Forefront products. Big players in the corporate market have called me to talk about the disadvantages of Forefront and everyone in the consumer space takes time to disparage OneCare.

Its actually unbecoming and suspicious to me the way everyone gangs up on OneCare, but its also true that it hasnt been well-reviewed. PCMag.coms latest suite comparison said that it didnt exactly suck, but it wasnt all that good. And Microsofts scanning engine hasnt been top notch in any tests Ive seen, including some presented to me by Microsoft.

Its in the business world where Microsoft will have a very hard time, even though their first effort looks better by comparison to OneCares. But fair or not, its reasonable for a customer to be suspicious of having Microsoft provide security for a Microsoft platform. This is a disadvantage they face no matter how well they execute their products.

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Some people put it in terms of asking Microsoft to protect against flaws in Windows, but this is unfair; security software and operating systems have different perspectives on things, except to the degree that you bundle the former with the latter. And its really not a flaw in Windows that malware is written for it, at least for malware that doesnt exploit vulnerabilities.

At least from some perspectives it may be more of a prejudice than actual good practice. But I think its better, all things considered, to have your security performed by a different company than the one providing the products being secured. Theres certainly no clear advantage to using Microsoft products to protect Microsoft platforms.

The server and gateway-based Microsoft products mitigate this disadvantage somewhat with an aggressive multiple engine approach. Building on the Antigen products they bought years ago, you are allowed to select several from a menu including the Microsoft engine and others (CA InoculateIT, CA Vet, Norman, Sophos, Authentium, Kaspersky, VirusBuster and AhnLab).

The multiple engine approach is not only a good way to disarm Microsofts home field disadvantage, its an attractive way to do things in general. The test results Microsoft showed me, performed by outside people I trust, showed very respectable protection.

Microsoft is not the only company running multiple engines and getting good results out of it. F-Secure also takes this approach. At home, I run Sunbelt Softwares Ninja server for anti-spam and anti-virus and it uses two engines for each. Expect this to be a trend, at least for smaller players; the big three (Trend Micro, McAfee and Symantec) will have to live or die based on the quality of their own engines.

Credibility is a tough thing in the security market. I expect Microsoft to have a better time of it in with smaller businesses competing against the likes of Sunbelt. Customers in this space are more apt to trust their VARs and consultants and opt for a "simpler" installation. But they still have competition.

When dealing with larger businesses that have real IT staffs I think it will be a long time, if ever, before Microsoft has success with security software. They have a tough sell to make.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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