Microsoft has released its free antivirus software, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE). As the name implies, Microsoft’s new security software removes the bloated bells and whistles found in other products, like Microsoft’s discontinued Windows Live OneCare, and provides only the essential protection.
Taken in the context of the Windows operating system, providing antivirus protection may be all that is necessary. Windows already has a firewall. Windows has the Windows Defender antispyware tool. Internet Explorer has features to detect and identify phishing and other potentially malicious web sites. So, for Microsoft to incorporate anything more than a stripped down antivirus capability could be considered overkill.
Third-party security vendors have lined up to alternately bash MSE as inadequate and slam Microsoft for throwing its monopolistic weight around. They can’t really have it both ways. Either Microsoft made a good product and its dominance of the PC operating system is a threat to the security software industry, or MSE sucks and they have nothing to worry about.
It is a mixed bag for Microsoft. Users and competitors are quick to point out flaws and vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Windows operating systems and other Microsoft applications. Microsoft has taken more than its share of criticism over software security. But, when Microsoft develops tools to close those gaps and protect its software it is accused of freezing out third-party vendors and charged with accusations of monopolistic bullying.
I tend to lean to the side of the debate that it is both Microsoft’s obligation and its right to secure and protect its products however it sees fit. If Microsoft’s efforts to create a more secure operating system platform end up putting third-party security vendors out of business, then so be it. Those entities arguably should never have existed had Microsoft created more secure software from the beginning.
One problem I see with MSE is Microsoft’s restriction that only systems that pass the Genuine Windows anti-piracy validation are going to be able to download it. I am not condoning software piracy, but there are plenty of illegitimate Windows systems around the world. I understand Microsoft not wanting to support pirated Windows operating systems, but the net effect of the attempt to ‘punish’ pirates adversely impacts the rest of us.
Its sort of like the debate about stricter gun laws. Those who are doing illegal things with the guns are already breaking the law and are not likely to care whether or not there are harsher penalties associated. Basically, gun laws only impact the law abiding.
Similarly, Microsoft’s attempts to punish pirates and not support illegal copies of the Windows operating system means that there will potentially be thousands or millions of Windows systems that don’t have any virus protection. When those systems are compromised and infected and commandeered as a part of some massive botnet that sends out spam or launches a DoS (denial-of-service) attack, it affects the rest of us as well.
Ultimately, though, users will benefit from a solid free antivirus option, though we’d all be a bit safer if Microsoft took its antipiracy fight elsewhere. Since every unprotected PC is a threat to all Windows users, even legitimate licensees will suffer from Microsoft’s arbitrary Windows Genuine Advantage restrictions.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.