Updated Wednesday with Microsoft comment.
A Windows enthusiast blog on Tuesday posted what it says are leaked screenshots of Microsoft's upcoming free security software, code-named "Morro," which is due for public beta release soon.
The Neowin.net blog has three screenshots that it says it obtained from an anonymous source. The software is reportedly being tested internally at Microsoft.
Meanwhile, CNET News' sister site ZDNet is reporting that Morro will be almost entirely cloud-based.
"Instead of scanning every file or network packet as they arrive into the computer from the Web or an external device, it creates a virtual tunnel between your incoming Internet pipe at the back of your computer to a Morro data center, which scans every byte and packet for malware," writes Zack Whittaker on the iGeneration blog.
"This is factually incorrect but we have nothing to add at this time," a Microsoft spokesman wrote in an e-mail.
Microsoft announced in November that it was discontinuing the subscription-based Windows Live OneCare consumer security suite in favor of a free offering that protects against viruses, spyware, rootkits, and Trojans, but lacks some non-security features OneCare had like automated PC tuneup and printer sharing.
Microsoft said at the time that the new offering would be available in the second half of 2009. Windows Live OneCare will continue to be sold for Windows XP and Vista via retailers through June 30, 2009 (nearly $50 per year for up to three PCs), and direct sales will be gradually phased out as Morro becomes available.
Morro, which will be available for download over the Internet, will work on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and the upcoming Windows 7.
OneCare, launched three years ago, received mixed reviews but still managed to significantly shake up the security software market, resulting in generally lower prices.
I asked some security vendors whether they were considering offering free software to compete with Morro.
"With a number of free products already available, McAfee has experienced more than three years of global growth," a McAfee spokesman said. "On a level playing field, we are confident in our ability to compete with anyone who might enter the marketplace."
"Microsoft isn't going to change the business dynamic. Freeware is really about customer acquisition," Dave Cole, Symantec's senior director product management. "Norton offers trialware as a means to secure customers and even freeware vendors such as AVG, Avira, and Avast recommend upgrading to their payware solution for more complete protection. 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."
And this from Justin Priestley, senior vice president of consumer sales at Kaspersky Lab Americas: "Right now, Kaspersky Lab offers free access to our antivirus detection technology through our Web site, allowing consumers to scan their systems or suspicious files...and for the foreseeable future, that will be the extent of our no-charge offerings."