Unlike Microsoft's Live subscription-based OneCare consumer offering, Microsoft Security Essentials focuses solely on anti-malware security, detecting and removing viruses, spyware, rootkits, and Trojans, and doesn't bundle in the firewalls or computer maintenance tasks and backup common in many security suites today. And there's no charge or registration required.
"This is real-time protection for consumers," says Alan Packer, general manager of Microsoft's anti-malware team. "We were surprised at the number of people out there not running anti-malware software -- a lot of Windows consumers are not protected."
The new product represents a shift in Microsoft's consumer AV strategy to a freebie model that some other security vendors recently have adopted, and it's likely to pressure AV giants McAfee and Symantec to eventually do the same, security experts say.
Packer says Microsoft decided to give away the software for free as part of its strategy of improving security for the overall Windows ecosystem. "There are a lot of other free anti-malware products out there, but a lot of them are trying to do an 'up-sell,' so there's still an economic model there," he says. "That wasn't a driving factor for us. We were looking at the sheer number of people unprotected in the Windows ecosystem, and we thought we could better serve them at no cost."
"This is the best thing for the buyer," says Roger L. Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "It will have the effect of putting [AV] companies out of those [consumer AV] businesses. Consumer AV is in jeopardy because, in some sense, you don't need it. It's an extra bolt-on that's not perfect. And you want things that keep quiet and fit -- you don't want to wear your AV like a ball and chain."
But that's exactly what some consumers have experienced with AV: "Anti-malware is expensive in resources -- CPU and memory consumption -- and that has an impact on the user experience. Some don't think it's worth it," Microsoft's Packer says.
By spinning off the security piece from the suite, Microsoft is focusing on protecting its "main franchise" -- the PC, says Endpoint Technologies' Kay. "They needed to focus on the security problem by itself...giving away security rather than bundling and selling it," Kay says.
Microsoft's new software will include a dynamic signature service that works with Microsoft Update, and it runs on the same anti-malware engine as Forefront and Live OneCare. "We're using the same base technology in Forefront, OneCare, and Defender, with different pieces of it turned on. Microsoft Security Essentials is the next generation of what was in OneCare," Packer says.
All signature and other updates are done in the background, and the software performs CPU-throttling during full scans, for instance, so as not to disrupt other operations, he says.
Rainer Gawlick, CMO at Sophos, says Microsoft's move is a win for the industry. "Unprotected consumer PCs are a security problem for the market, with botnets [and other issues]," Gawlick says. "Overall, we think it's right for consumers to get free protection."
Microsoft also simplified the user interface using the standard green for clean and red for problem. Fixing a problem is just one click on a prominently displayed button on the page, Packer says.
The software, which will be released in its final version this year, is for Windows XP (Service Pack 2 or Service Pack 3), Windows Vista, and Windows 7 (Beta or Release Candidate).
Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to halt retail sales of Live OneCare at the end of the month; existing OneCare users will be given a free extension of their subscription until Microsoft Security Essentials is shipping in production.
Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.