Microsoft has begun offering limited trial downloads of its no-added-cost anti-malware tool, targeted at consumer desktops.
Beta versions of Microsoft Security Essentials (formerly codenamed Morro) will be available to 75,000 US, Israeli, and Brazilian customers running XP, Vista, or Windows 7 machines. The software will provide protection against computer viruses, spyware, and rootkits. Would-be guinea pigs need to go through Microsoft Connect.
The final version of the product, a cut-down version of the discontinued OneCare product that omits the latter's back-up and firewall functionality, is expected in September.
Microsoft has been active in the enterprise security market for some years, selling its Forefront security product range and predecessors. The suite includes endpoint security, firewall, and messaging server security products, targeted at the mid-market.
It's in this market segment that Microsoft is going head-to-head with the likes of McAfee and Symantec.
Microsoft Security Essentials, by contrast, is a limited security product for Windows that comes at no extra charge and is designed at offering a basic level of protection. Security firms such as AVG and Avast already provide limited-functionality security suites to consumers, partly as a way to build brand awareness and attract follow-on sales but also out of a more altruistic desire to improve overall internet hygiene.
Redmond has a greater stake in protecting Windows machines, the perceived vulnerability of which threatens to erode its sales (albeit slowly) in favour of Macs and netbooks running Linux. "Microsoft Security Essentials is more about protecting the image of Windows than anything," Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at corporate-focused security firm Sophos told El Reg. "McAfee and Norton have not done a good enough job at defending against spam and botnets."
"Microsoft has the marketing muscle and brand to get its product into the market which might, unfortunately, have an effect on the revenues of smaller players targeting consumers. The average guy in street will not be too preoccupied about the finer points of security products. He's just worried about how to get onto the net."
Symantec, by contrast, reckons that Microsoft's Security Essentials products is unlikely to upset the current market equilibrium. It further argued (see statement below) that consumers need the firewall functionality absent from Microsoft's offering.
Microsoft's free product is a slightly modified and stripped down version of the OneCare product it pulled from the shelves recently. Consumers don't need less protection -- they need more. Referring to Microsoft's basic antivirus and antispyware product as an essential security solution is misleading. Consumers need firewall protection, Web protection, antispam and identity safeguards - these are among the essentials when it comes to security, and you can only get them through a full Internet security suite provided by security experts.
Microsoft isn't going to change the dynamics of the consumer security industry. The reality is that shareware and freeware vendors have been in the market for 20-plus years. The freeware space is crowded and Microsoft is just joining the fray. In addition, early reviews of the beta are showing that it underperforms when compared to existing freeware products, and well below paid solutions such as Norton AntiVirus.
Some of Redmond's security-related tools - such as its Malicious Software Removal Tool, which is updated every month at the same time Microsoft releases new patches - have had success at cleaning up PCs infected by strains of malware such as the Conficker worm.
Viewed from that perspective, Microsoft Windows security add-on is welcome. However, we have been here before and Microsoft needs to avoid the mistakes of the past. Way back in 1993, the Jurassic era of computer security, Microsoft bundled an anti-virus program, acquired from Central Point, into MS-DOS version 6. The application was poorly supported and infrequently updated resulting in protection that was ineffective, at best, and quickly consigned to the dustbin of history.
A lot has change since, not least the recent acquisitions by Microsoft in the security marketplace that mean that Redmond has more expertise this time around. That doesn't mean that Microsoft Security Essentials will succeed, of course, just that lack of corporate resources will not be an issue for Microsoft Security Essentials. ®
We're interested in hearing from beta users of the software about their experiences via the usual address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And a quick warning. It's likely that scammers will waste little time offering links of downloads to Microsoft Security Essentials from sites, or through Torrents, that offer only malware instead. Let's be careful out there.