Microsoft Making Waves With Consumer Security Beta

The beta trial for Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) 1.0 is now closed after 75,000 testers downloaded it following Tuesday's debut.

Microsoft has received plenty of criticism about its software security over the years, and a whole industry has built up around providing that security at a cost. Now, Redmond has released MSE, which is a free antimalware solution for consumers.

MSE was formerly known by its code name, "Morro," and will replace Microsoft's free Windows Defender antimalware software, according to a Microsoft blog.

The implications of Microsoft entering the consumer software security market already appear to be spilling far beyond this beta release. Industry critics have not been shy about voicing their opinions.

Software security competitor Symantec has described MSE as "OneCare repackaged" -- alluding to the subscription-based consumer security offering that Microsoft plans to stop selling in retail outlets by the end of this month. Symantec described OneCare's demise as proof-positive that standalone security products are "not in Microsoft's DNA."

Large software security firms have good reason to be concerned. Symantec has at least $2 billion of its $6.2 billion in annual revenue coming from its antivirus (AV) offerings. McAfee forecasts $1.8 billion in revenue for 2009, with more than $700 million coming from sales of its consumer and enterprise AV products.

Redmond's new antimalware initiative could have consequences for enterprise software security providers too.

"Microsoft's offer of free AV speaks to the larger issue about AV being commoditized and putting the screw to those larger vendors who have antiquated, slower, expensive solutions," said Eric Schultze, chief technology officer at Shavlik Technologies.

Schultze added that Shavlik is using snap-ons and peripherals to integrate AV into the patch management process and make the addition of software from all third-party vendors relatively seamless.

Microsoft is not new to the AV game, but it's also not trying to upset the software security provider applecart in one fell swoop.

"Microsoft is already going head-to-head against the rest of the industry in the enterprise market, with a product range that includes antimalware and much else, but is very definitely not free," explained David Harley, ESET's director of malware intelligence, in a statement. He added that ESET expects to see "a free but limited product" eventually coming out of the MSE beta.

The product does appear limited to the consumer sphere. A Microsoft blog explains that MSE cannot be controlled by group policy settings. Moreover, MSE is not integrated with network access protection or Microsoft's System Center enterprise management solutions.

Toney Jennings, CEO at CoreTrace, said he feels that Microsoft's offering of a free antivirus solution is not the beginning of anything.

"It signals the official ending of the blacklisting era," he said. "It is the 'jump the shark' moment and Microsoft has now essentially set the value of blacklisting protection at zero because it is so fundamentally broken that it is not even worth a penny."

Going forward, security may be defined by what's safe (i.e., whitelisting) instead of what's not, Jennings suggested.

So far, in initial testing, MSE has come off without a hitch. Germany-based AV-Test GmbH ran MSE against more than 3,000 common viruses, bot Trojans and worms. All of the bugs were detected and cleaned seamlessly.

Microsoft expects to release MSE to manufacturers in 20 markets sometime in the second half of this year, according to the Forefront team blog. Some of the data gathered from MSE use will be used to support Microsoft's Forefront enterprise security suite, the blog explained. MSE works with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, but it will available as a separate download from Windows.

Redmond is already paying attention to user feedback by providing a support site with FAQ for beta testers.

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.