Friday, November 12, 2010

Is Microsoft Going Too Far to Protect Us?

It's a fine line to walk for an operating system vendor. If your OS is compromised by viruses or malware, it's called insecure and you get the blame. But if you build too much security into the operating system, you're called over-controlling and you might even get slapped with an anti-trust lawsuit. How far is too far to go in pushing your own particular brand of protection onto your users?

In the olden days (MS DOS), the OS was basically just an OS. If you wanted to actually do anything with it, you had to install applications. Windows (which in its first incarnations wasn't an OS at all, but a shell that ran on top of MS DOS) added more and more basic built in applications - simple word processor, calculator, games, communications apps, etc. It was the inclusion of the Internet Explorer web browser that really raised the hackles of third party software vendors and resulted in anti-trust suits in the U.S. and the Europe Union. Later the same issues were raised over the inclusion of Windows Media Player.

By the time we got to Windows XP, there were all sorts of apps included - even a rudimentary firewall - but one category of software that you still had to buy separately was anti-virus and anti-malware software. Microsoft started moving in that direction when they included Windows Defender, an anti-spyware product, in Vista and Windows 7. Meanwhile, in 2009 they released Microsoft Security Essentials, a free anti-virus program that could be downloaded from the Microsoft web site for XP, Vista and Windows 7. But the user still had to seek it out and install it.

Now that's about to change. Well, sort of. Microsoft has announced that they will begin delivering Security Essentials through the Microsoft Update service. That got some folks upset, thinking they were going to have Microsoft's anti-virus forced on them whether they wanted it or not. The good news is that Security Essentials will only pop up as an optional update. You'll still have to check the box if you want to accept and install it. And it will only show up there if Windows detects that you aren't currently running another anti-virus program. So if you have your own favorite anti-virus, as so many of us do, you should never even see it as an option.

There may be some cases where your anti-virus doesn't communicate with Windows and so isn't detected, but again, it will only be offered as an option and you don't have to accept it. Given those conditions, the intent seems pretty obvious: to prod those who are running unprotected systems into installing an anti-virus solution. However, some see this as only the first step toward including anti-virus in Windows, just as anti-spyware and the firewall are now included. Some view that end as a good thing, others as not so good. Ed Bott sees it as another potential anti-trust suit:
Microsoft tempts antitrust lawyers with expanded antivirus offering

The free security software that Microsoft offers is pretty basic, and those "in the know" generally buy and install more full featured products, but does the average consumer know (or care about) the difference? You can argue that, regardless of whether there is an anti-virus program bundled with the OS, users are always free to disable it and install one of their own choosing. On the other hand, many people are basically lazy, and/or want to save money, and so will stick with the built-in solution. Will this pose a threat to vendors of other anti-virus products?

I think the key is for those vendors to show how their products are better. If users can see what the differences are, and see the value that makes it worth paying a little extra and taking a little time to install and configure, they'll do it - just as many users make the extra effort to download and install Firefox or Chrome or some other alternate web browser even though Internet Explorer comes with Windows.

Tell us what you think. Does offering a free anti-virus solution through Microsoft Update - even if it's only offered on systems where another AV program isn't detected - give Microsoft an unfair advantage in that space? What if they started bundling their AV program with the operating system? Should that be allowed (as long as you can easily disable it and install a different one) or does that create an anti-trust situation? Some think Microsoft should be required to include free AV and other security software as part of the OS; how do you feel about that? Will the next version of Windows have AV bundled with it? Could that threat of another anti-trust suit be the big risk that Steve B. was referring to in relation to Windows 8? I don't think so, but it makes for an interesting question. We invite you to discuss this topic...

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