Symantec Rant Against Microsoft Security Essentials Backfires

Other security professionals say the product is decent or pretty good

A Symantec blog post that belittles Microsoft's new free security offering, called Microsoft Security Essentials, was not received too well by users. Meanwhile, other security experts had a more moderate or even favorable opinion of the product.

In case you haven't heard yet, a few days ago, the Redmond-based company officially released a free antivirus solution named Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE). Our software review department already had a run with it and gave it a 5-star rating. And even though the details of this test are beyond the scope of this article, please feel free to read them.

What compelled us to write this piece was the response Microsoft's move to shake the antivirus world got from the security community in general and people that work for established security vendors in particular. One unfortunate case was that of Symantec, whose Senior Director of Marketing Strategy and Branding for the worldwide consumer market, Mr. Mike Plante, published a MSE-related post on the company's blog, that many would classify as rant.

Mr. Plante begins his article by comparing Microsoft's action with a TV show rerun. "MSE appears to be little more than a bad rerun of Microsoft’s infamous history of offering consumers incomplete and ineffective protection," he writes. In order to argument his position, the marketing director dives into a comparison between MSE and Symantec Antivirus 2009. He picks on the MSE's Live OneCare ancestry, a product that never excelled in antivirus tests and cites a recent comparative study commissioned by Symantec.

The test, performed by UK-based Dennis Technology Lab, placed NAV 2009 and MSE 1.0 beta against active malware and rated their protection capability. "MSE falls short of protecting against today’s aggressive malware and zero-day threats. Norton nearly doubled the protection provided by MSE in malware detection, scoring an 80 compared to MSE’s 44 using DTL’s Accuracy scoring system," Mr. Plante points out. "At the end of the day, MSE is a rerun no one should watch," he concludes.

This kind of talk down of a free product, coming from the representative of a company that does not offer a similar costless solution did not fall too good with users. Most of the comments the post has received so far are negative. "You see, when you try to 'rub it in' to another company, it can backfire. So before you go spouting off about how great NIS is, please remember how many crappy versions came before it. It's going to take more than a couple of slightly above average releases of NIS to erase those bad memories. […] Mr. Plante, practice being humble, and let your product do the talking," a user sums it up.

Meanwhile, Alex Eckelberry, the CEO of Sunbelt Software, who also commented on the release of MSE, was a lot more balanced with his opinions about the product and managed to raise some very good points. He explains that MSE will not be an issue for antivirus vendors such as Symantec or McAfee for several reasons.

First of all, many of the users who will choose MSE as their antivirus solution are people who would likely never have become Symantec or McAfee customers anyway, either because they don't want to pay for security software or because they can't afford to. In this case, it's more appropriate to say that MSE will compete with free solutions from companies such as AVG, Avira or Avast. According to Mr. Eckelberry, these are the antivirus players that should feel a little bit uneasy about MSE, because "nag screens, toolbar installs, misleading messages to upgrade, all efforts to monetize a free product piss off users to no end."

Secondly, Symantec and McAfee earn a lot of customers through deals with OEMs and retailers, who bundle their software with new computers. This is highly unlikely to change, as these companies earn money from these contracts too. When it comes to the enterprise/business market segment MSE poses no threat at all, as licensing terms prohibit its use in such environments and the product was not designed with centralized management in mind. "The Microsoft product isn't bad at all, unlike past efforts on their part. Decent detections, reasonable footprint. However, it does not have email AV functionality and not all the bells and whistles that the suites have," the Sunbelt CEO concludes.

It is notable that Microsoft Security Essentials will not be shipped through automatic updates and performs the Windows Genuine Advantage validation on install. Without these two restrictions, it would have probably been able to reach many of those users who don't have any protection at all and really need it. On the upper side though, MSE features support for 64-bit flavors of Windows Vista and Windows 7, something that few other security solutions currently offer.

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