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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
How far do you trust Microsoft?
Bill Gates, Microsoft
Can Microsoft win customers for its anti-virus product?
Technology analyst Bill Thompson wonders who would trust an anti-virus product from Microsoft

This week Microsoft announced plans to buy a Romanian anti-virus technology company, and instantly the technology sites were full of speculation about what it all means.

Shares in anti-virus firms dropped in value, comparisons were made with the browser wars when Microsoft used illegal tactics against Netscape's Navigator web browser, and everyone assumes that the whole anti-virus market would be completely turned upside down.

The regulars from the industry, like Graham Cluley from Sophos, are wheeled out to make their pronouncements, and Microsoft gets a massive amount of publicity for very little effort indeed.

To bundle or not to bundle?

Bill Thompson
I suspect I'm not alone in saying that I'd never buy, trust or install an anti-virus package with the Microsoft name on it
Bill Thompson

It helps that that GeCad, the company involved, makes one of the few serious anti-virus tools for Linux, as this fuels another level of the grand Microsoft conspiracy theory.

Since GeCad's RAV software will be discontinued if the deal goes through, the paranoid argue, all Microsoft are really trying to do is weaken the market for open source software.

There are, of course, examples of technologies which were doing very well as third-party add-ons until Microsoft decided to bundle them with Windows and take over the market.

The web browser is the most obvious, but disk de-fragmenters, disk compression tools and network software all came first.

In fact, Microsoft had its own bundled anti-virus program for DOS and Windows 3.1 back in 1994, but it was not a success, primarily because the company could not get updates out to people reliably.

This was before the rapid growth of the internet, when viruses spread on floppy disks, and getting new signature files to people meant posting them.

However it does demonstrate that not everything Microsoft wants to do is a success, and this may be doubly true for a modern anti-virus product.

Lots of support

First, it is hard to do.

The successful vendors have massive teams of developers analysing new viruses, providing customer support and running around to make sure that large-scale outbreaks are contained.

They do not just deal with home users, either. Big companies spend lots of money on virus protection because of the potential damage to their business.

Microsoft may have bought in some expertise for writing the software, but it will take a lot to get the support structure in place, and customers who have been unhappy with its level of support for the software it provides today are unlikely to be convinced it can do this well.

This leads to the second point. Microsoft has a poor track record when it comes to the security of its products and its ability to deal with these problems effectively.

Some of the patches it sends out to customers cause new problems and have to be recalled, and many computer administrators are suspicious of software updates in case they break working programs.

Security holes

How can I be sure that Microsoft will not decide to make its own anti-virus software 'easier' to use, or 'more convenient', and in the process damage its effectiveness?
Bill Thompson
Why should anyone want a Microsoft anti-virus program?

We do have good and effective anti-virus software today. I have never been infected, and I get a lot of e-mail and have a permanent connection.

The combination of a third-party firewall and a third-party AV program keeps my Windows computers safe from harm.

But I know what damage the interaction between the various components of Microsoft Office and the Windows operating system can do.

It opens up security holes, gives virus writers the hooks they need to install their software on my system and has required dozens of patches and software updates over the years to make it even moderately safe.

How can I be sure that Microsoft will not decide to make its own anti-virus software 'easier' to use, or 'more convenient', and in the process damage its effectiveness?

The competition among the AV software firms, and their independence from the operating system vendor, is the best guarantee I have that they will protect me.

Price for using Windows

They have no interest in protecting Microsoft's public image, they have no access to the internals of the Windows operating system, and they have a lot to lose if they get it wrong.

I do not want to be stuck with a Microsoft anti-virus program as the price of using Windows.

If a team of anti-virus writers come on board and get unrestricted access to the source code of Windows so that they can spot the bugs and errors that a virus would use to damage my computer, then they could be useful.

But that would be because they make it harder for virus writers to work, not because they have written a new anti-virus program.

I suspect I am not alone in saying that I would never buy, trust or install an anti-virus package with the Microsoft name on it.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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