Since its introduction in 2006, Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare has altered the antivirus landscape. With Tuesday's announcement that Microsoft will no longer be selling the product in retail outlets but offering a new free version, code-named Morro, starting in the second half of 2009, it's sure to change the field once again.
Since Microsoft bought Romania-based antivirus firm GeCad five years ago, there has been fear among the commercial antivirus vendors that the software giant would simply bundle its malware protection within the next version of Windows. While that didn't happen--and it's unlikely to happen--Microsoft's addition to the market has forced its competitors to make some changes even though Microsoft hasn't become the huge player once feared.
Even before the first beta in 2005, McAfee and Symantec were talking about plans to go head to head with the software giant. McAfee announced plans around Project Falcon, and Symantec launched Project Genesis.
Microsoft OneCare entered the market in May 2006 as a "desktop IT department" and inspired a new breed of "omni security suites" that went beyond the traditional Internet security suite. I wasn't impressed. Although OneCare offers the revamped GeCad antivirus engine, Microsoft Windows Defender antispyware protection, and the Windows Firewall, along with system diagnostic tools, backup capabilities, and a way to monitor home networking, I think that the interface is clunky and that the tools aren't necessarily top of the line. And, I'm on record as calling OneCare SopranoCare since it seems wrong to me to have to pay the company that broke your operating system to fix it.
But at its introduction, Microsoft did shake up the antivirus landscape. OneCare was priced at an absurdly low $49.95, and it protected up to three PCs. At the time, Symantec's Norton Internet Security and McAfee's Internet Security were both priced at over $100 for their three-user packages. Today, three-user packages well under $100 are common.
Symantec responded in 2007 with its Project Genesis-produced Norton 360, a unified product that took Norton Internet Security and added online backup. But Symantec didn't just add to its existing product, it reinvented the product, producing a new one with a fully integrated interface marketed for the average home user. And at around $70, it could be used on up to three PCs.
McAfee also responded with its Project Falcon-produced McAfee Total Protection, also priced around $70 for up to three PCs. It too offers home network monitoring and premium or enhanced versions of the McAfee Internet Suite.
But McAfee and Symantec both had something Microsoft did not: effectiveness.
Almost two years ago, independent antivirus-testing organizations faulted OneCare for missing known malware. Andreas Clementi of AV-Comparatives.org wrote in his February 2007 report (PDF) that OneCare did not meet the minimum requirements for participation. "Due (to) that, its inclusion in future tests of this year (will) have to be re-evaluated."
Microsoft began hiring longtime antivirus experts from competitors, and it appears to have paid off. A few years ago, Vincent Gullotto came over from McAfee to head Microsoft's Security Research and Response team. Microsoft has since added experts from F-Secure, Sophos, and elsewhere to the team. And it shows. In the latest On Demand scanning test from AV-Comparatives.org, Microsoft OneCare 2.5 scored as well as McAfee VirusScan Plus 2008.
All is not perfect, however. In May, Microsoft mistook Skype for a piece of malware. And the Windows Firewall, while Microsoft insists otherwise, is not a truly two-way firewall; there are a great many outbound exceptions within the Microsoft version. A Microsoft representative said "If we turned on outbound filtering by default for consumers, it forces the user to make a trust decision for every application they run which touches the network." Given that other firewalls have outbound filtering, I still don't see why Microsoft can't.
The free version of Morro won't have all the current bells and whistles of OneCare; Microsoft says the diagnostic tools won't be included. Although the final feature set won't be known for a while, just having a free antivirus/antispyware/personal firewall product from Microsoft is bound to shake things up.
With traditional antivirus protection perhaps becoming obsolete, maybe it's time that Symantec and McAfee start offering free versions of their own antivirus products--something that I've said for years.