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Why Does Microsoft Charge for Security?

Microsoft today delivered the public beta version of Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE, previously codenamed "Morro"), its Windows Live OneCare replacement. Like OneCare, MSE provides anti-malware protection to individual PCs. But unlike OneCare, it doesn't include a host of the ancillary functionality that graced the previous product, including multi-PC management, a two-way, managed firewall, and online photo backup. Instead, MSE tackles malware with a laser-like intensity, filling the one security hole that Microsoft doesn't plug in Windows itself. MSE will be made available, for free, to all genuine users of Windows XP, Vista, and 7. It's a small, lightweight application that's decidedly less "chatty" than OneCare. In other words, it doesn't constantly pop-up notifications about absolutely nothing.

Sounds fantastic, right?

It is fantastic, but only if you're an individual or, potentially, a very small business. Microsoft freely licenses MSE for use on any number of genuine installs of Windows, so you're able to install it on as many PCs as you'd like. But it's not an enterprise tool. MSE comes with no central deployment or management functionality, for example.

The reason for this is simple: Microsoft already offers a manage anti-malware solution for businesses, and it's based on the same anti-malware engine used in MSE. It's called Forefront Client Security (FCS), and Microsoft has already announced that the 2.0 version (codenamed "Stirling") will work with Windows 7.

If you're not familiar with FCS, it seems to answer all the issues managed environments would have with MSE. That is, you use policy to deploy a malware protection agent to clients via a central console, the FCS Management Console. And then you use that console to manage the security of your environment in a highly granular fashion. If you already use any of Microsoft's management consoles, you'll be right at home in the FCS Management Console, and you can take advantage of its reporting functionality to keep up with the ongoing health of your environment.

The problem with FCS, of course, is that it's not free. According to Microsoft's current price list, FCS costs $12.72 per PC or user per year, plus $2468 per server, per year, for the FCS Management Console. (One server can typically handle up to 12,000 clients, according to Microsoft.)

Maybe it's me, but it seems like there's a big gulf between free and unmanaged on the one hand (MSE) and expensive but managed on the other (FCS). In keeping with the theme of last week's commentary, Google Rains on Microsoft's Exchange Parade, I think Microsoft is going to have to adapt its pricing strategy to meet the pricing of competitors like Google.

That's particularly true with security, where the cynical might argue against the need to pay Microsoft to fix problems that are, essentially, in their other products. I don't think it's that black and white, but I would argue that pervasive security should simply be a benefit--no, a feature--of the Microsoft ecosystem. And that would point the way to a much less expensive, possibly even free, version of FCS. Could it happen? I don't think Microsoft is there yet. But it's the direction they should be heading.

In the meantime, be sure to check out MSE on your own desktops. You can find out more in my overview of the Microsoft Security Essentials Public Beta.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June 23, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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