Is Microsoft’s Entrance into the Anti-Spyware/Anti-Virus Market Predatory?

As a user of Microsoft products and an employee of the company, I am of two minds about its entrance into the anti-spyware and anti-virus arenas. I agree with the sentiments Michael Gartenburg of Jupiter Research shared in his post Microsoft and Security - Demand if they do and demand if they don't

It's tough to be Microsoft. On one hand, folks insist that security, spyware and virus are issues that they must own. On the other hand, when they do own it and respond, they get dinged for it. Microsoft's decision to get into the business and make these tools available should be lauded. Security is a tough issue that I've written about before and users need to also take on a share of the responsibility of keeping their systems safe. The fact is, even with good solutions on the market, not enough users are protecting their systems and if Microsoft entering the game can help change that, it's a good thing.

Given that spyware is quite likely the most significant problem facing users of Windows I believe that Microsoft has a responsibility to its customers to do something about it. Others may disagree. For example, Robert X. Cringely attacks Microsoft for its recent announcements about getting in the anti-spyware market in his post Killing Us With Kindness: At Microsoft, Even Good Deeds Are Predatory. He writes

How can giving away software tools be bad? Look at how Microsoft is doing it. Their anti-virus and anti-spyware products are aimed solely at users of Windows XP SP2. This has very different effects on both the user base and the software industry. For users, it says that anyone still running Windows 98, ME, or 2000 has two alternatives -- to upgrade to XP/SP2 or to rely on non-Microsoft anti-virus and anti-spyware products. Choosing to upgrade is a 100+ million-unit windfall for Microsoft. That's at least $10 billion in additional revenue of which $9 billion is profit -- all of it coming in the next 12 months.That $10 billion, by the way, comes from you and me, and comes solely because of Microsoft's decision to offer "free" software.

Of course, you can decide not to upgrade to XP/SP2 and rely instead on third-party products to protect your system. But Microsoft has set the de facto price point for such products at zero, zilch, nada. By doing this, they have transferred their entire support obligation for these old products to companies like Symantec and Network Associates without transferring to those companies any revenue stream to make it worth their trouble. Maybe Peter Norton will say, "Screw this, I'm not going to support all these millions of people for nothing." Well, that's Symantec (not Microsoft) apparently forcing users into the same upgrade from which Microsoft (not Symantec) gains all the revenue.
Look how this decision transforms Microsoft. By choosing to no longer support a long list of products (is that even legal?), hundreds and perhaps thousands of developers will be switching to new duties. If this were any other company, I would predict layoffs, but a key strategy for Microsoft is hiring the best people simply to keep them from working elsewhere, so I don't think layoffs are likely. What IS likely is an exodus of voluntary departures. What's also likely is that those hundreds or thousands of reassigned developers will be moved to some other doomsday product -- something else for us to eagerly anticipate or fear.

Cringely seems to be confusing supporting old versions of Windows with providing applications that run on current versions of Windows. Windows 98, Windows 98 SE and Windows Millenium are old versions of Windows whose support life cycle was supposed to end about a year ago but was extended by Microsoft. At the current time, Microsoft will continue to provide critical security updates for these operating systems but new applications won't be targetting them but instead will target the current version of Windows for the desktop which is Windows XP.

Microsoft's anti-spyware and anti-virus applications are not an operating system upgrade but instead new applications targetting the current versions of Windows. Even if they were, Windows 98, Windows SE and Windows Millenium are past the stage in their support life cycle where they'd be eligible for such upgrades anyway. Given that Robert X. Cringely is quite familiar with the ways of the software industry I'm surprised that he expects a vendor of shrinkwrapped software to be providing new features to seven year old versions of their software when current versions exist. This practice is extremely uncommon in the software industry. I personally have never heard of such an instance by any company.

Comments (10)
  1. Steve Hall says:

    Unfortunately, guys like Cringely are simply echoing the ignorant masses of end-users that firmly believe when they buy a new PC, it should: 1) include everything they will ever need (magically predict new features and metamorph to satisfy those new requirements), and 2) all the software that came with the PC (including the OS) will never need maintenance (because it was obviously PERFECT when designed and developed). This thinking comes from the experences that consumers have with buying hardware, such as their TVs, radios, kitchen appliances, etc. It’s what I called "appliance software syndrome".

    End-users want software that: 1) installs by magic, 2) works like magic, and 3) NEVER needs upgrading or fixing!

    Obviously, the flaw with this "appliance" way of thinking is that the products to which they’re comparing software do not usually NEED to be upgraded with new features or have routine maintenance. ("When was the last time your can opener needed an upgrade? What was the new feature you just HAD to have in that can opener?") I.e., the comparisions consumers make with software are invalid!

    The only way I’ve been able to convince such end-users their thinking is flawed is to extend this "appliance" analogy to include cars. They usually always tell me silly things like, "My cars last 5 years! Before I throw them away!", to which I rebut "But if you performed routine maintenance, it would last 10-20 years, right?" They usually think they’ve found a flaw with that argument by pointing out "But you can’t find parts for a 20 year old car? So why bother?"

    And so thus, they have proved (by their own admittance) the argument that software is NOT an appliance…and why they should NOT be running that old Windows 95 or 98: 3rd part vendors eventually do NOT want to "keep parts in stock", and with some products it makes sense to toss them out periodically.

    In short, most consumers are inconsistent about applying the same ownership rules between different types of products, and don’t usually realize this until you point it out and emphasize that software is not yet an "appliance".

    Now if someone would only sit down with Cringely and discuss his car ownership and maintenance with him (along with this appliance analogy), we might have a chance at getting him to stop propogating this belief that software is an appliance.

  2. FUD says:

    It’s predatory when it detects Firefox as spyware.

  3. Who gives a damn if it’s predatory or not? You can sell or give away whatever you wish in whatever market you wish so long as you don’t phyiscally harm anyone. That is your right as a company in the US of A.

    Do whatever you want MS. If other companies can’t compete, that is their problem and demonstrates that they are a crappy company (Real Player anyone?… SPYWARE!)

  4. Arun Puri says:

    Actually, MS is damned in this case, does not matter what it does, because of monopoly position and the earlier conviction. It cannot launch a product and give it free as this would very likely bring on another case from DOJ and such. And it cannot really charge for the product to patch its faults. Due to that, I still do not get the reasons for making such a move.

  5. We fix the computers that are infected by spyware. We also deal with the customers that are not happy with Microsoft for allowing there computers to become infected. I think they must protect there software. If they don’t they will loose market share. I have had many enjoyable hours developing software using MS products, and I would like to see them continue.


    Terence Blyth

    Managing Director

    Computer Technologies Ltd

  6. I agree with you Dare. I don’t see where Robert X. is going with this one.

  7. The only way Robert’s thinking could even remotely be correct is if you treat the OS as something differently classified than software. Technically it’s an Operating System but it’s still software developed by a compiler to produce machine code. Since it’s still compiled, it should be thought of as other software. Do you think OSS developers will keep developing on 1.0 of their product when 2.0.390.3909 is out? Nope. You may have the sourcecode since it’s open source, but you won’t have any official support whatsoever. Any company that seeks to make revenue wouldn’t operate this way unless it didn’t want to make money.

    Arun: Can’t offer it for free? Charge $1 for the entire package. I suppose the whole "Well it’s FAR cheaper, therefore PROMOTING competition is BAD!" argument from other companies. I’ve long thought that the only people that benefit from spyware/malware/viruses are the companies that sell anti-virus/spyware/malware software. Now that MS is getting into the game, my conspiracy theories about programmers at say Symantec developing a virus to push their product on me will no longer take place. I doubt Symantec does this but I wouldn’t be surprised if other companies had virii/spyware developers on their payroll.

    As someone who’s on XP SP2, I say thank you and finally. I don’t think I’ll give up Norton just yet since it’s centrally controlled from my server. There’s no "Microsoft Anti-virus Corporate" and if there was, I don’t think it’d be as cheap as Symantec’s anyway but hopefully I’ll be proven wrong in that regard. I personally think it should remain free as a commitment to security but I realize anti-virus is a constantly maintained system and it’ll need developers devoted to it full-time. Hopefully steps will be taken in the future to minimize the need for anti-virus/spyware software altogether, as I believe there are approaches to eliminate them completely.

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