John Thompson, chairman and CEO of Symantec, has warned that the $4 billion antivirus industry would not think twice about making a legal stand against Microsoft if it entered the sector in any way that leveraged its monopoly position.
To date, Microsoft has taken a softly-softly approach to bundling as free features various desktop security technologies such as anti-spyware or anti-phishing systems that it has picked up in a series of acquisitions.
In just three years, the company has bought the DynaComm i:filter web filtering product from FutureSoft, taken over the antivirus house of Sybari Software and before that GeCAD Software, and acquired the anti-spyware security appliance specialist Whale, another anti-spyware product from Giant Software, and the email security managed services outfit of FrontBridge.
Over time, industry watchers maintain that security features derived from these transactions can be expected to appear as standard issue in the Windows operating system and other core Microsoft products such as the Exchange groupware suite.
While it has stopped short of building its acquired GeCAD antivirus engine into Windows Vista, the next version of the client operating system, it has retooled and rebranded the Giant anti-spyware as Windows Defender and that will ship as part of Vista, as will an Internet Explorer sandbox and an in-built anti-phishing filter.
On that move Mr Thompson said he was less concerned, because the prevailing price for spyware has been relatively low. But he said it was not so much the size of the market at stake that was important to him, as the tactics and behavior being shown by Microsoft.
Microsoft has already said it will not bundle antivirus with Windows Vista, but there is some technology crossover in that Defender checks for spyware threats using the very same detection technology as used in its antivirus system.
These moves are not good news at all for the niche pureplay anti-spyware vendors, which are already competing against the anti-spyware features that have appeared in antivirus products. They now face the prospect of competing against Windows. But it is understandable that the big antivirus suppliers of Symantec, Trend Micro, McAfee, and Panda are now also beginning to feel threatened by Microsoft’s encroachment.
In February Microsoft announced it would sell its latest desktop internet security suite for up to $70 less than its biggest competitors, and will provide free support.
Symantec has reason to feel doubly cautious about that announcement. Rather than merely launching a me-too antivirus/firewall/antispyware offering that is comparable to Symantec’s Norton products, Microsoft’s new OneCare subscription service will bundle in PC maintenance and backup capabilities as well. Symantec has been selling comparable PC maintenance software as a separate bundle for many years. Norton SystemWorks features backup, rollback, disk tools, and antivirus, but no firewall or anti-spyware.
The acquisition of Sybari shows all too well that Microsoft is sensitive to the prospect of legal challenges from the industry and regulators, alike. Sybari was somewhat unusual as an antivirus vendor in that it did not create its own virus definitions or scanning engines but enables customers choose multiple antivirus packages from partners including Sophos, CA, Kaspersky Labs, VirusBuster, and Norman. In other words, Microsoft is looking to protect its relationships, at least with some of the antivirus specialists.