Thursday, November 4, 2010

Microsoft tempts antitrust lawyers with expanded antivirus offering

Microsoft tempts antitrust lawyers with expanded antivirus offering

You want a good, solid, free antivirus program? Microsoft Security Essentials fills the bill nicely. Unfortunately, even though it was officially released more than a year ago, it’s still one of the best-kept secrets in personal computing. Its installed base of 30 million users worldwide might sound big in raw numbers, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the billion-plus Windows PCs in use.
All that’s about to change, as Microsoft has now begun delivering Microsoft Security Essentials via Microsoft Update to customers in the United States (a pilot program in the UK started earlier this year). If Windows detects that you’re currently running without up-to-date antivirus protection, this is what you’ll see in the Optional Updates section:

Although this development might seem like a logical one for Microsoft, it’s actually a big step—and a potentially risky one. Security software vendors have their antitrust lawyers on speed dial in anticipation of the day when Microsoft begins bundling antimalware protection directly into Windows. As a result, this long-overdue development is moving at glacially slow speeds.
Earlier this year, on the 10th anniversary of Microsoft’s landmark antitrust defeat, I noted:
Microsoft Security Essentials is available to any Windows PC as a free download, but it’s still not available as part of Windows itself. The Windows 7 Action Center will warn you if you don’t have antivirus software installed, but clicking the Find a Program Online button takes you to this page, where Microsoft’s free offering is one of 23 options, most of which are paid products.
In this case, I think the mere threat of an antitrust complaint from a big opponent like Symantec or McAfee has been enough to make Microsoft shy away from doing what is clearly in its customers’ best interests.
So Microsoft moves slowly, deliberately, one step at a time. Previously, you had to seek out and download this free (and very effective) software on your own. Now it shows up under Optional Updates, if you know where to look. And Microsoft has upped the stakes by altering the license terms so that small businesses can install up to 10 copies of the software free of charge,
The logical next step, of course, is for Micosoft to classify this update as Important, where it will be offered as an automatic update on unprotected PCs (similar to the way the Malicious Software Removal Tool is delivered monthly). At some point, it can and should be fully integrated into the operating system itself.
As the screenshot above makes clear, this update was released roughly two weeks ago, on October 19, but it’s only now beginning to appear on update screens across the United States. (Lee Mathews at Download Squad spotted this update in the wild last week. It wasn’t available on my system then or even earlier today, when I checked for updates manually. Ironically, I was in Redmond at the time, meeting with the Microsoft Security Essentials team and discussing this very issue. It appeared on my system for the first time just a few minutes ago.)
I’m willing to bet that antitrust lawyers for the big security software vendors are looking at this development very carefully. Will they actually threaten legal action? Stay tuned.

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