Industry wary of Microsoft's antivirus play

Major antivirus vendors responded with guarded optimism Tuesday to Microsoft Corp.'s announcement that it will buy antivirus technology from Romania's GeCAD Software Srl and offer its own antivirus products.

The five biggest antivirus software vendors, Symantec Corp., Network Associates Inc., Trend Micro Inc., Computer Associates International Inc. and Sophos PLC, see Microsoft's move as an acknowledgement that fighting viruses is a key part of cybersecurity.

However, the vendors also stressed that using antivirus technology alone is not enough to be safe online. If Microsoft were to become a major player in the basic antivirus space, the vendors would be in the game of selling crucial additional software and services such as intrusion detection, firewall and security management applications, they suggested.

"We still need to understand the full implications of this," said Genevieve Haldeman, spokeswoman for market leader Symantec. "We believe that customers are going to continue to look to independent security companies to provide comprehensive threat protection for Microsoft's as well as other popular operating environments."

Computer Associates sees Microsoft's move as "the next evolutionary step in the world of plain antivirus," said Ian Hameroff, a security strategist at Computer Associates. However, antivirus is just one piece of a total security strategy and Computer Associates sells the other pieces, he said.

Although Microsoft will now become a competitor, the software maker is also an important partner for antivirus software vendors. Access to Microsoft APIs (application program interfaces) is key to making virus traps work well.

"We still see Microsoft as collaborators," said Network Associates President Gene Hodges.

Cutting off access to APIs would backfire on Microsoft as it would result in hordes of angry customers, Hodges said. "I don't think Microsoft would do that. I expect Microsoft to work in its self interest and their self interest would be to give access to other vendors," he said.

Trend Micro sees Microsoft's acquisition of GeCAD's technology as a necessary part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, it said in a statement.

Microsoft briefed antivirus vendors on its takeover before making it public, possibly defusing any potential negative reactions. Bundling antivirus software with Windows could change the competitive landscape dramatically and even sideline antivirus vendors in a Netscape-like scenario. Netscape is the Web browser that fizzled when Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows.

"The situation might change if they bundle it (antivirus software) with Windows," Network Associates' Hodges said.

Microsoft said it won't offer antivirus software for free as part of Windows or any other product, but charge for it. The company has not detailed an antivirus product plan, time frame or any of the acquisition details.

Several analysts expressed no surprise at the news, but said Microsoft has a major technology advantage in building antivirus software for its own products.

"Microsoft will be a competitor with a strong advantage," said Jan Sundgren, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "They could bundle it and if it just comes along for free, customers will look at it first before buying another product."

The worldwide antivirus software market hit US$1.1 billion in 2001 in terms of revenue and is growing steadily with a predicted compound annual growth rate of 11 percent to hit $1.8 billion in 2006, according to research firm Gartner Inc. in a recent report.

With its products and operating systems the frequent target of virus writers, Microsoft is devoting an increasing amount of attention to antivirus technology in recent months.

In May, for example, the company joined with Network Associates and Trend Micro to form the Virus Information Alliance in an effort to keep users better informed about virus threats to Microsoft products. Microsoft also developed a virus scanning API for its upcoming Exchange 2003 e-mail server.

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