Microsoft Should Offer Free Antivirus Technology to its Windows Customers

What you're about to read is controversial in certain circles. I'm not sure why; I believe the following discussion results in an obvious decision. I'm going to argue that Microsoft has a responsibility to bundle core antivirus technologies in Windows--for free, not for a monthly subscription fee--and that by doing so, the company will prove that it's more concerned about its customers than its relationships with certain partners. I expect to receive many complaints about this stance, so let me explain.

Microsoft recently revealed that it plans to add various antivirus technologies to Longhorn, the next major Windows client. The company has two basic plans for antivirus technology in Longhorn: One could help third-party antivirus companies, and the other could make their products obsolete. First, Microsoft will add deep-level APIs to Longhorn so that third-party antivirus developers can embed their products more intimately into Windows. Currently, antivirus products must latch on to Windows at a higher level, making them more resource-intensive than will be necessary under the new system. Second, Microsoft plans to offer its own antivirus service with a low-cost subscription fee. Microsoft representatives said the company doesn't want to unfairly wrest the market from third-party vendors. They said that if Microsoft offers the service for free, the company might kill the third-party client antivirus market.

No doubt based on Microsoft's timid lurching into the antivirus market, Symantec Chairman and CEO John Thompson described Microsoft's move into the antivirus market as "much ado about nothing" in an interview with CRN recently. Although Thompson's proclamation about Microsoft's move might have a temporary calming effect on Symantec's shareholders and employees, the truth is that Symantec has much to fear from this move. I've often argued that Norton Antivirus has been living on borrowed time because adding antivirus technology to Windows is an obvious and overdue necessity. "Until \[Microsoft has\] an offering in the marketplace, until we know what it is targeted toward, we're not going to run around doing high-speed hand-wringing at Symantec," Thompson told CRN.

Well, let the hand-wringing begin. Unlike Microsoft's questionable justifications for embedding products such as Windows Movie Maker, Windows Media Player (WMP), and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) into the core Windows OS, adding antivirus technology to Windows is a no-brainer, akin to the company's decision to add a basic firewall product as part of Windows XP or TCP/IP as part of Windows 95. In my opinion, customer safety and security should come first at Microsoft, and if that hurts a few third-party developers, so be it. The history of Microsoft's OSs includes instances in which third-party utility makers saw functionality from their products added to the core OS. Those companies that survived and flourished were able to move into new markets and continue innovating with features and services that Microsoft didn't offer. Not only would Microsoft be justified in adding antivirus technology to Windows, I argue that the company has a responsibility to do so for free because antivirus isn't a just value-adding feature, it's become a necessity.

If you're still not convinced that your security should take precedence over one product category, consider the following: Most antivirus products sold with new PCs today include only a limited amount of free antivirus signature updates, usually from 1 to 6 months. These signature updates are what makes an antivirus product relevant because they provide protection against new viruses on an ongoing basis. Most people who use third-party antivirus products stop updating signatures after the free trial period has expired, leaving their systems open to attack. The key here is human nature: Many people just don't understand the necessity of keeping signatures up-to-date and, arguably, they shouldn't have to. As a base part of the OS, Microsoft could simply use its Automatic Update feature to ensure that your system is always up-to-date by silently turning on its antivirus technology if your machine is connected to the Internet. That way, customers are automatically protected, without having to do any work.

Under Microsoft's current plan, customers who sign up for the Microsoft antivirus service would get most of these benefits, albeit after first paying the company a monthly fee. But again, we don't pay monthly fees for IE and the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), and these free products (excuse me, core Windows components) certainly compete with third-party products. In a similar vein, Microsoft should simply offer the antivirus service for free. And the sooner the company makes this decision and alerts its customers, the better. As customers of the software giant, we've made an investment in Microsoft's platform, and providing free antivirus would reinforce the notion that we've made the right decision.

For corporate customers, the decision to add antivirus technology to Windows is even simpler. Most midsized and large-sized businesses are already essentially paying Microsoft a regular subscription fee for their software. Is the software giant really considering adding an additional "antivirus surcharge" on top of its volume-licensing fees? Many people compare Windows and its various options to a car; buyers are free to swap out the manufacturer-supplied radio for one that a third party makes. Carrying this comparison to its logical conclusion, users are free to use Netscape instead of IE if they so desire. But antivirus technology isn't an optional component anymore--it's more like a crucial part of the engine. If you're connected online, you should have antivirus protection; in other words, the car shouldn't even start unless this crucial component is enabled. This is just commonsense.

Come on, Microsoft, do the right thing. Customers come first.

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