When Microsoft announced its Windows Live OneCare security and PC health product over five years ago (as MSN OneCare), Symantec, McAfee, and the other consumer-oriented security vendors reacted with stunning vigor, attacking the software giant for intruding on their turf. (Symantec CEO John Thompson described OneCare, at the time, as "much ado about nothing.") They then set out to unabashedly imitate OneCare with me-too products such as Norton 360 and McAfee Family Protection.

Those efforts were ultimately quite successful. Microsoft never grew past single-digit market share, while Symantec finished 2008 with 22 percent of the market, compared to 10.9 percent for McAfee. So Microsoft changed course yet again. At the end of last year, the company announced that it would discontinue OneCare in 2008 and launch a free anti-malware product code-named Morro and, more recently, branded as Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE).

Microsoft briefly offered MSE as a public beta and the resource, so far, has been tremendous. Customers report that MSE is small, light, fast, and doesn't bog down PCs as do the top-heavy suites from Symantec and McAfee. Plus, MSE will be free. How will the security heavyweights of the world compete with free?

With more bluster, of course. This past week, Symantec Product Manager David Hall said that only using free anti-malware would put PCs at risk. "If you are only relying on free antivirus to offer you protection in this modern age, you are not getting the protection you need to be able to stay clean and have a reasonable chance of avoiding identity theft," he said. "Microsoft's free product is basically a stripped-down version of the OneCare product Microsoft pulled from retail shelves."

According to Symantec, the real issue is that most infections occur online now via so called drive-by downloads, typically via a web browser. (Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 and 8 already both protect against such attacks, by the way.) But as is always the case, Windows users should look past the marketing bluster. While most PCs come with free trial versions of security products from Symantec, McAfee, and others, users of those products rarely upgrade them to full versions or keep their subscription activated. Thus, most users of these products are unprotected while online. A free product like MSE—along with some much-needed common sense—is a much better alternative to relying on a security product that expired some time ago.

Back in July 2003, I wrote an editorial called "Microsoft Should Offer Free Antivirus Technology to its Windows Customers," in which I argued that Windows users should come first and their security should take precedence over the needs of Microsoft's partners. This is more obvious today than it was at the time, given our ever-increasing reliance on connectivity. It's nice to see that Microsoft has finally come around to this notion as well, albeit six years later. But it's also unsurprising that security vendors, which grew fat long ago on Microsoft's security lapses and the ignorance of consumers, would fight this move kicking and screaming.

Let them scream, I say. As always, Windows users come first.

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