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Microsoft and the Antivirus Question

Several people have asked about Microsoft possibly developing antivirus products, following comments made yesterday by Mike Nash, Security Business Unit vice president.

That Microsoft would be eyeing the antivirus market is not surprising. How slowly the company is moving in that direction is what people should find surprising. Consider that Microsoft agreed to acquire antivirus maker GeCad a year ago last week or that the company tested security software PC Satisfaction for the better part of a year.

One place antivirus software might make sense is part of the operating system. One of Microsoft's longstanding problems is figuring out when a separate product is utility enough to be made part of Windows. I can remember when companies charged for TCP/IP stacks. Microsoft eventually rolled that functionality into Windows, because networking had reached a certain critical mass.

But, the post-trial Microsoft must contend with the reality that operating system bundling is viewed more critically than even three or four years ago. I recall the mid-2001 fuss over Microsoft putting firewall capabilities into Windows XP. Firewall providers survived the bundling. Aside: JupiterResearch consumer surveys show that a large number of Windows XP users don't realize a firewall is built in to the operating system.

Bundling antivirus software into Windows could affect loyal Microsoft partners and increase unwanted criticism. Loyalty does count for something at Microsoft, which typically does stand by its loyal customers, although it sometimes steps on them accidentally (What happens when you're a mouse and an elephant rolls over in its sleep?).

News reports offered conflicting versions of Mr. Nash's comments, some suggesting Microsoft would release antivirus software and others that the company had undefined plans with respect to antivirus.

I don't envy Microsoft's position. The right thing to do for its customers would be to bundle antivirus software into Windows. The Internet is increasingly dangerous, and the company has an obligation to protect its Windows customers. But vendors like McAfee and Symantec are customers, too, and loyal partners--companies that have built up businesses around selling antivirus software subscriptions.

At some point, Microsoft will have to make the tough decision. Windows Service Pack 2 was a tough decision, because of the resource investment and potential customer usability impact. Bundling is another, and one I would encourage Microsoft to consider making. Soon. Whether intended or not, Mr. Nash's comments are now a trial balloon that Microsoft can use to gauge customer, partner, news media reaction to a move into the antivirus market. [via Microsoft Monitor]


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