Windows 8's built-in AV to be security of last resort

Integrated Windows Defender will activate only on PCs sans antivirus software or after other products have expired

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Currently, the only AV software sold in the Microsoft Store is from Trend Micro, which along with McAfee and Symantec, are the three largest antivirus firms.

Later Monday, Microsoft said that Windows 8 products would also be available through the Windows Store, which will sell not only Metro-style apps but also some traditional desktop programs.

Although Windows 8 users will be notified during the 15-day span -- and after that if they take no immediate action -- the protection gap will put those PCs at greater risk of cyber attacks and malware infections.

Not that those computers won't have company: Last week, McAfee cited a year-long study and claimed nearly 20% of U.S. Windows PCs lack any active security protection. More than a third of those machines had expired AV software on their hard drives.

Microsoft's decision to hold off on activating Windows Defender in Windows 8 is in line with its approach to securing older versions of Windows. In late 2010, Microsoft began offering Security Essentials to Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 PCs via the company's Windows Update service. Since then, Security Essentials has been listed as an optional download from Windows Update only on PCs that lack other working AV software, a category that includes present-but-expired third-party programs.

At the time, Trend Micro called Microsoft's move to use Windows Update to offer the free Security Essentials "unfair," and said it "raises significant questions about unfair competition."

AV vendors have butted heads with Microsoft several times.

In 2006, Symantec and McAfee complained to European Union antitrust regulators about Microsoft's decision to block them from accessing the kernel in the 64-bit version of Vista, and barring them from its new integrated security center. Microsoft bowed to the pressure, and later produced APIs (application programming interfaces) that gave security vendors some access to the kernel and allowed them to mesh their product's on-screen status features with the security center.

Major security companies have also regularly dismissed Security Essentials as a half-baked solution, and argued that their software is much more effective in stymying attacks.

When Microsoft launched Security Essentials in 2009, for example, Symantec's top engineer called it a "poor product" that was a "bunch of little basic tools."

Symantec, and others, continue to use that argument to persuade potential Windows 8 users that they should pay for antivirus software rather than rely on the free Windows Defender. On its website, Symantec uses phrases like "We are the security experts" and "Norton protection includes many layers of security which Windows Defender is missing" to separate its consumer products from the free tool in Windows 8.

Although the Windows 8 Release Candidate activates Windows Defender automatically, Microsoft also has built a page that lists the current third-party AV software that works with the new OS. Most of those programs have limited lifespans of between 30 and 90 days.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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