Security vendors have reacted defiantly to the launch of Microsoft's free antimalware software for consumers.
Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), which launched on Tuesday, is a free download for any legitimate consumer of Windows, and provides protection against viruses, spyware and other malicious software, the company said.
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The technology draws on the same resources that support Microsoft's commercial Forefront Client Security, which is sold to businesses including features such as the Dynamic Signature Service, which automatically keeps protection up to date in between scheduled scans.
"[MSE] is designed to be 'install and forget,'" said Cliff Evans, head of security and privacy for Microsoft U.K. "Once you've installed it, it will update itself without user intervention."
Recent research from GetSafeOnline, a government-sponsored campaign to promote safe computing, found that half of all U.K. consumers fail to keep their antimalware software up to date, thereby creating an opening for cybercriminals to install Trojans, steal information and recruit them into their botnets.
Evans said the Microsoft freeware will enable those unprotected users to become more secure, and therefore help protect other users who suffer as a result of poorly protected systems.
The software installs with an initial 5 MB download, and then brings in signature databases automatically. The aim is to keep the footprint low and maintain performance even on low-powered PCs and netbooks. A combination of smart caching and active memory swapping ensures that signatures do not take up too much memory at any one time, Evans said.
Free antivirus software is nothing new, but the arrival of Microsoft in the space certainly changes the market, said David Emm, a member of the Global Research and Analysis Team at Kaspersky Lab. "AVG and Avira have been offering free AV software for a while, but Microsoft is different because of its stature in the market. It packs more of a punch," he said. "It may help to minimise the spread of malware such as Conficker if more people have security software installed, especially in the developing world."
But he argued that many users want to have more than antivirus protection, and will therefore be prepared to pay for a more complete solution covering other functions, such as mail and Web filtering. "I think MSE will limit the use of other companies' standalone products, but a lot of people will prefer to go for Internet security suites," he said.
Nick Billington, U.K. country manager for BitDefender, which itself offers a free online virus scanner, called QuickScan. He said the move by Microsoft would help to expand the market by raising awareness about the need for security for the Windows operating system, but added: "If Windows were secure, there would be no need for security software, from Microsoft or from anyone else. The continued existence of such software for Windows is proof enough, if proof were needed, that Microsoft can't or won't properly secure their platform."
Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software Inc., added that PC manufacturers are unlikely to ditch their lucrative partnerships with the security software companies for the Microsoft freeware. "The OEMs are not going to back down. They want the users to have a Symantec, McAfee or Trend product, because they receive so much money from those companies. The going rate is $8 to $12 to get your product on a Dell machine," he said.
In any case, he said, Microsoft had little choice but to introduce a basic free product. "This is not a Microsoft conspiracy to take over the world. They had to do this to beat off Apple, who are taking their customers. And they had to deal with these people who are infecting everyone else because they don't have any AV protection.
"I don't think it'll have a big impact on the big guys like Trend, McAfee and Symantec, but it will have a huge effect on the free guys like AVG and Avira."
Paul Lipman, head of consumer business at Webroot Software Inc., said he welcomed Microsoft's move. "The threat landscape is only getting more complex, and the more companies focus on solving this issue, the better off consumers will be. But free consumer security software has been available for years, and its providers have historically offered inferior protection and customer support."
He said customers were prepared to pay for good products and support, and were increasingly favouring integrated, advanced protection offered by more comprehensive suites.
That view was endorsed by Peter Cooper, a senior director in CA Inc.'s European business. "Several years ago Microsoft entered into the Internet security space with its Live OneCare product. At the time this was projected to rock the very foundation of the Internet security industry; it didn't," he said.
"Like most freeware products, Microsoft's freeware is a very basic antivirus option. Only time will tell how it will compete with other freeware antimalware products, however we do not see this competing with paid for offerings like our Internet security products."
But Microsoft's Cliff Evans insisted if users combined MSE with a firewall, turned on automatic updates and used an up-to-date browser, they would receive a good measure of protection with no intervention required. He denied, however, that Microsoft's intention was to damage other security vendors. For example, the product will not be bundled into Windows 7 so users will have to make a positive decision to download it.
"We're not going out there to compete hard. Our main aim is to increase security in the Windows ecosystem," he said.