Jury Still Out on Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft last week reported positive numbers for its new consumer antivirus (AV) solution, but security vendors haven't heaped much praise.

Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) has undergone more than 1.5 million downloads in a week's time, and it has found four million malware threats, Redmond reported in a blog. Still, critics of MSE are easy to find -- especially among security software vendors with a stake in the market. Not surprisingly, their reviews of MSE range from mixed to lukewarm.

Ardent critics remain too, including Symantec, which commented last year that AV software wasn't in Microsoft's "DNA." More recently, Eugene Kaspersky, founder of security software firm Kaspersky Labs, called the program "Windows Two Care" -- a barbed reference to the Windows OneCare consumer service that MSE is supplanting.

On the whole, most security experts agree that Microsoft's dispersal of free AV software was a good idea. Still, MSE isn't a comprehensive security solution.

"Microsoft Security Essentials is an oddly named program," noted Randy Abrams, director of technical education at security software firm ESET. "Antivirus is one of the security essentials, but by no means compromises a set of essentials. It leads one to wonder whether there will be additional free security offerings so that MSE will be part of a package."

About a year ago, Redmond described MSE (then known by its code name "Morro") as an attempt to serve the underserved, providing free protection to those who could not, or would not, buy AV software. The new AV solution was designed for a "smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources, making it ideal for low-bandwidth scenarios or less powerful PCs," Microsoft then explained in an announcement.

To that end, the main key feature of this product is that it's free -- at least for the time being, noted Jason Miller, data and security team leader at Shavlik Technologies.

"There are quite a few computer users that do not use any antivirus programs on their systems," Miller said. "People generally trust Microsoft and hopefully will adopt this product. The more people that use AV software…[it's] just one more system a bot cannot use as a host."

Still, Microsoft's move into the AV space could erode some of the collaborative trust that's existed among security researchers.

"Microsoft's decision to move into this market has the potential for serious unintended consequences," said Andrew Storms, nCircle's director of security. "We know that Symantec and other antivirus vendors have been sharing their threat and risk information with Microsoft in an effort to better protect all consumers."

Possibly, MSE could "erode the market share of key players," causing antagonism.

"You have to wonder if everyone will continue to 'play nice' and share advance information with a competitor," Storms added. "Shared intelligence is one of the scarcest commodities in the security market today."

Microsoft launched MSE to the public on Sept. 29. However, other builds apparently will continue to circulate among testers. For instance, users can currently sign up to test a new beta of MSE, according to an Ars Technica article. The offer extends through Oct. 22.

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.