Here is a scenario we have seen before: Microsoft leverages its domination of the operating system to muscle its way into an adjacent space. Most of the time, that is a bad thing, leading to the disappearance of smaller, more innovative competitors. The company has been rightfully slapped around for that sort of monopolistic behaviour by both US and European regulators. But when it comes to desktop security — where Microsoft recently began offering free antimalware software via Microsoft Update — Microsoft deserves kudos, not slaps. Ironically, Microsoft may be doing consumers and IT a favour by taking on Symantec and its lumbering, customer-unfriendly line of Norton security products. Symantec, which has huge market share and is often the default security program placed on PCs by manufacturers, has taken its customers for granted for years. Shocking as it may seem, Microsoft may be coming to the rescue. Microsoft's automatic security download
Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), a perfectly serviceable antimalware application, has always been available free of charge. Yet, compared to paid offerings by Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro, its user base of about 30 million is paltry. However, our buddies in Redmond have made it an option in Microsoft Update, which means that users could download and install it with a couple of clicks and no particular thought. Other antivirus vendors have repeated the usual platitudes about how their products offer much more than the basic protection users get from MSE, how signature-based defences are too limited and so on. Security vendors have every right to compete on that basis and if consumers would rather pay for their products, so be it. In fact, there is some truth to their arguments, and I wouldn't say that MSE is the superior product. But that is not the point. Trend Micro, though, has taken a more aggressive public stance and is waving the antitrust flag. I would bet that Symantec and McAfee are also burning lots of billable hours with their lawyers, waiting to see how this unfolds before pulling out the knives. "Commercialising [Microsoft] Update to distribute other software applications raises significant questions about unfair competition," is what Carol Carpenter, the general manager of the consumer and small business group at Trend Micro, told Computerworld. "[Microsoft] Update is a de facto extension of Windows, so to begin delivering software tied to updates has us concerned. We believe it should not be used this way," she says. As always, the details of what is actually occurring can be a bit devilish. The MSE download option is triggered if Windows doesn't detect working security software on the PC. Microsoft then adds MSE to the optional section of Microsoft Update, a superset of the better-known Windows Update, or to Windows Update if it has been configured to also draw downloads from Microsoft Update. Microsoft made the point to say that it was not offering Security Essentials via Window Update, but only through the Microsoft Update service. This also offers patches for new versions of non-operating-system software, notably Office and Windows Media Player. Got that? Complicated as the process sounds, from the user point of view, it's rather transparent, and it wouldn't take a huge jump to move the optional download to Windows Update. Clearly, Microsoft is taking this a step at a time and waiting to gauge consumer — and, more significantly, regulator — reaction.
I hope Microsoft's move is a wake-up call for Symantec. I am picking on that company because it has used its dominant position in the market and the relative weakness of its major competitors as an excuse to ignore its customers. Most egregious is its customer service. Ever try to reach Symantec for tech support? Ever had the download of a paid upgrade or a licence activation go sour and then tried to correct it? Yikes! What a nightmare — a common one, too. Then there is the never-ending feature bloat. Norton keeps getting bigger, using more disk space and other system resources. Now that I have been automatically upgraded to the latest version of Internet Security, I am getting inane warnings about things I do not need to care about. For example, it keeps telling that some system files are using a lot of disk resources. So what? The files in question are part of Windows and I couldn't turn them off if I wanted to. To quote an acerbic editor of my youth: "Why are you telling me this?" What is worse, the program insists on doing background scans whenever it feels like it, no matter that it is in the middle of my work day and a terrible time to slow my PC. Digging around for settings to change that is unconscionably difficult. That said, Symantec has done a decent job of protecting my home network; I am not quite ready to dump it. But if ever a company and its products needed more competition, it is Symantec. I never thought I would say it, and maybe I will regret it in the morning, but what the heck: "You go, Microsoft." - Snyder is a US technology writer