OneCare Seals the End of a Security Era

Opinion: The entry of Microsoft's OneCare service to the consumer security market is another sign that the era of security software choice is over.

Im continually surprised at the number of companies in the security space, especially those marketing to consumers. It always seems like the number is growing, and I suppose its a function of the market itself growing.

The companies all seem to be nervous about Microsoft entering the market, as it has finally done with the official release of its Windows Live OneCare service. All the big players are talking to me about the service and how they are reacting to it.

I havent tested OneCare yet. Its hard to get excited about it from a technical perspective for the same reasons competitors give me when arguing that their offerings are superior: OneCare doesnt really do all that much relative to the competition. Theres no reason to believe it will be especially innovative.

It might turn out to be a good product. Its not really a version 1.0 product since its based on existing software that Microsoft acquired (GeCAD Softwares anti-virus and Giant Softwares anti-spyware) and its own firewall which its been working on for years. The quality of the product will be evident in some ways as the first reviews come out, but this is the sort of product and service that have to be judged over time.

Ive been giving Symantec, McAfee and most of the rest of the security gang a hard time for raising prices dramatically over the last few years. Yes, they have added new features to protect against new threats, but everyone in the software business adds new features and they dont usually increase prices every time they do so. As a result, the annual cost of security software protection for consumers is many times higher today than it was several years ago.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about a warning from Microsoft that recovery from malware is becoming impossible.

Could Microsoft have come in and undercut the competition? Probably. That strategy has sometimes worked well for the company—remember when Access came out at $99 in a market of $495-and-up databases? Microsoft cant get away with that anymore—hell, it cant even put PDF output into Office without antitrust threats.

So coming into the market at $49.95 is basically entering the low end of the market range. That alone may be scary enough for Symantec and McAfee who, Im sure, look at their new service-based offerings as a way to increase the average annual cost even more.

They plan to do so, in part, by adding protection for even more threats, like phishing. Once again, Im leery of it all. For one thing, why should a product with anti-spam protection also need anti-phishing protection? Arent all phishing e-mails spammed to the user?

The services also end the era when it might pay to go for "best of breed" security on a client. With all the biggest companies pushing a service model, now it will be harder and harder and just not worth the work to pick your favorite firewall, your favorite anti-virus product, and so on. Youll have to pay for it anyway as part of someones service. Perhaps most consumers really want it this way, but its still a step backwards from my standpoint.

Ive argued in the past that Microsoft enters this market with no special credibility, and in fact with a credibility problem. Theres no question thats true in the business market, where it is making an even more serious effort to offer a comprehensive line of security software. That will be really interesting.

But maybe I was abrupt in dismissing its chances in the consumer market. Microsoft will not have trouble getting shelf space in the stores, it should have some success being offered as an option by OEMs, and it has a healthy advertising budget. Consumers might feel good about buying a name they know already, and they might even assume (work with me here, I dont believe this myself) that software from Microsoft will have fewer problems than software from third parties.

So the era of choice is over, and you will buy a subscription to someones suite of security software. Microsofts entry into the market solidifies this change, and maybe it even legitimizes it some. If were lucky, it will actually put some downward pressure on prices, but Im not holding my breath.

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

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