Microsoft Tries to Leapfrog the Consumer Security Problem

Opinion: Microsoft's new subscription-based anti-virus service could actually force its competitors to improve their products and lower prices.

Sometimes its amazing to see how Microsoft can take their time with things that others view as a crisis, and theres no better example than security. Nearly two years after Microsoft bought an anti-virus company, they have finally decided what to do with it.

Windows OneCare, the "Automated, All-in-One PC Health Service for Consumers" that Microsoft announced last week, is a lot more than a security suite. Having waited so long that the virus problem has plateaued, the company couldnt just offer yet another security suite. Instead they are going "next generation."

I dont expect the services anti-virus protection to be anything exciting, although if Microsoft follows the lead of its anti-spyware programmers it could be a quality product. Whats more eye-catching are such features as performance tuning and backup. Windows does come with a backup program (and I actually use it), but clearly its not a good general solution. The OneCare backup and restore will work with CD and DVD drives, for example.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about Microsofts anti-spyware offering.

The performance optimization features have me confused. According to the press release, the service will "automatically carry out periodic maintenance tasks such as disk cleanup, hard-drive defragmentation and file repair." Actually, if you dig just a little, Windows can already do all this automatically (from the Start menu, click on Programs, then Accessories and System Tools, and then select Disk Cleanup and Disk Defragmenter). Perhaps these old tools stink at what they do, but then OneCare is just an admission that Microsoft isnt interested in fixing them. Im shocked.

And then theres price, both at the consumer and OEM level (especially the OEM level). Youd think that $5 either way couldnt make much of a difference, but it definitely can, and the cost to resubscribe can be critical.

I cant help but think that many of these functions, such as performance tuning and better backup, really should be core Windows functions. There arent large established markets of competitors to threaten antitrust suits. One could make the case that these functions are fundamental, too. But if they do a good job with it the software will be well worth some extra money and will raise the bar for the consumer security establishment.

Remember, the established companies being threatened by this move have generally been raising their subscription prices over the years, and their franchises have become valuable and powerful. So my main hope for Microsofts OneCare service is that it will raise the bar for the competition and pressure rivals to lower prices. Yes, thats right, we need Microsoft to inject a little competition into the market.

For its part, Symantec says it isnt scared of competition and that consumers will decide what is the best solution. Nothing like a good tautology to add to the discussion, but clearly theres no way this is good news for Symantec.

When I suggested that Microsofts free anti-spyware product would be the end of Webroot Software, the companys counterargument to me was that Microsoft was incompetent and would never get it right. I doubt Symantec is making such assumptions. In fact, if things go well, Symantec will assume that Microsoft will do a good job and adjust its products and prices accordingly. Hurray for Microsoft.

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

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