Microsoft dumps OneCare, slates free security software for '09

Rival Symantec calls move 'capitulation' by Microsoft, failure of OneCare

Microsoft Corp. will dump its Windows Live OneCare consumer security software next year and instead give away revamped, streamlined antimalware software that it's calling "Morro" for the moment.

A longtime rival called the move the equivalent of Microsoft raising the white flag. "We view this announcement as a capitulation by Microsoft and a reinforcement of the notion that it's simply not in Microsoft's DNA to provide high-quality, frequently updated security protection," said Rowan Trollope, senior vice president of consumer software at Symantec Corp., in an e-mail today.

Morro, which will rely on the same scanning engine that OneCare and other Microsoft security products currently use, will be available in the second half of 2009, said Amy Barzdukas, a senior director of product management at Microsoft. The software will provide a "basic level of antimalware protection," including defenses against viruses, worms, Trojan horses, rootkits and spyware, she said.

Windows Live OneCare, meanwhile, will get the boot as of June 30, when it will be dropped from retail sales.

Barzdukas cited two reasons why Microsoft decided to take its consumer security software down the free road. "First, the incidence of malware continues to go through the roof," she said. "Malware is also 'quieter' than it used to be, and people have the lowest level of concern over malware since 2004. Users aren't connecting the dots."

Second, she continued, malware infection rates in developing countries are climbing even faster, while people in those places may find it difficult or impossible to find or pay for security software.

Together, those spell trouble for Microsoft. "From an overall Microsoft and Windows perspective, these aren't good for us, and not good for the [Windows] ecosystem," Barzdukas said.

Microsoft has made several moves lately that it has said were driven by a desire to boost security not just in its own products, but to better secure all PCs. In one program in that campaign, Microsoft said it would export its expertise in writing secure code to third-party developers.

"I think [Morro] is consistent with our other decisions" along those lines, Barzdukas said.

Much of Morro is still up in the air, including its exact release date, how it will be delivered and how it will perform. Barzdukas declined to answer those questions, instead saying that Microsoft would reveal more at a later date.

But low impact on PC performance is clearly a goal of Morro. Calling it "slimmed down" in comparison with third-party consumer security software, Barzdukas said Morro will be "lighter and work on less-powerful machines."

Users often complain that security software consumes too much memory, takes too long to load and slows down their PCs' speed, issues that some vendors have tried to address. For instance, Symantec this year rewrote its Norton consumer line to reduce its system "footprint."

Microsoft's move to free its software could create problems for companies that specialize in consumer security, said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at U.K.-based Sophos PLC. Although Sophos develops security software, it doesn't sell to consumers.

"There will be some sleepless nights" at companies such as Symantec, McAfee Inc. and Trend Micro Inc., the three largest consumer security software makers, Cluley said. "They may wake up in a cold sweat."

Cluley based his forecast on two facts: The software will be free, while rivals' programs cost $50 and up each year, and Microsoft is a brand name. "Having a name as well-known as Microsoft doing this will encourage people to use security software, and that's marvelous," Cluley said.

But at the same time, Cluley cautioned, it's possible that if Microsoft is successful at persuading consumers to install the free Morro, users could actually suffer in the long run. "The potential issue here is that if there are fewer antivirus companies, we may see less innovation," he said. And if a large number of people are using Microsoft's software, and that free offering has pushed out other players, "it may be easier for hackers to get past our defenses," Cluley argued.

However, John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Inc., questioned whether users would step up to Microsoft's free software. Noting that Windows Live OneCare "hasn't made a dent" in market share, he argued that one reason consumers have steered clear of Microsoft's security software was distrust.

"Consumers are hesitant to pay for a Microsoft security product that will remove problems in other Microsoft products," he said. "Think of it this way. What if you smelled a rotten egg odor in your water, and the water company said, 'Sure, we can remove that, but it will cost you $50.' Would you buy it?"

From Pescatore's point of view, Microsoft's announcement to dump OneCare and go free with Morro was primarily a business decision driven by the failure of OneCare to gain market share and of Microsoft to turn a profit on the acquisition years ago of the technology it used as the starting point for its security line.

Pescatore wasn't buying the idea that it was only a move to boost the number of consumers running security software. "In general, they did get the message years ago that it doesn't matter if [a problem] is Microsoft's fault or not, but I don't think this is a piece of that strategy."

Microsoft's Barzdukas said business didn't enter into the decision. "The focus of going into the OneCare business was to get a broader range of people protected," she said. "We've been very pleased with OneCare's performance, and subscriptions are exceeding what we had projected." She denied that OneCare's future disappearance was tied to a lack of profitability.

One major consumer security developer said it wasn't worried about Microsoft offering free software next year.

"We like our chances," said Todd Gebhart, vice president in charge of McAfee's consumer line. "It will appeal to some," he acknowledged, "but if you look at the growth, it's coming out of the higher-end suites. Users are voting with dollars, and they understand the need for greater security, not just core antivirus."

Symantec echoed that, but put it into even blunter words. "Consumers have already rejected OneCare even though it entered the market at a lower price, because OneCare offered substandard protection and poor performance as evidenced by scores of third-party reviews," Trollope said. "Making a significantly scaled-back version of that same substandard security technology free won't change that equation."

It's not clear if current users of OneCare will be given refunds if their subscriptions have not yet expired when Morro is released. Barzdukas declined to answer questions about refunds, but said OneCare users will continue to get updates after June 30, when the software is pulled from retail.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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