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It’s official: Microsoft to offer free anti-malware service

In announcing the release of its Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), the software giant is going on the offensive against two combatants: other commercial anti-virus providers and consumers running pirated copies of Windows on their PCs.

Microsoft's anti-malware security offering is scheduled to launch on Tuesday. But, while the download is free, the product is selective -- it will only work on PCs authenticated with legitimate versions of Windows software. Users must be validated via Windows Genuine Advantage.

MSE provides protection for Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista and Windows 7 systems. The offering, which had been codenamed Morro, will replace Windows Live OneCare, which included both security and utility services for $49.95 per year.

Much like Forefront, Microsoft's enterprise security product, MSE includes defense against rootkits and other aggressive threats, including live kernel behavior monitoring for keeping track of the integrity of kernel structures, as well as support for direct file-system parsing to help identify and remove malicious programs and drivers hidden from the file system, according to Microsoft.

What effect this new release will have in the commercial space is still open to question.

"I don't believe the release of the free anti-virus product will create a big change in the market," Chenxi Wang, principal analyst, security and risk management at Forrester Research, told in an email on Friday. "Microsoft's track record in the consumer security business is rather poor. This product, though it is free, is not built into Windows, so consumers would have to proactively download it from Microsoft's website. Although there is no renewal, no registration, I believe the distribution channel alone will limit the spread of the product."

Wang added that though competitors are leveraging retail resellers, ISPs and OEMs, Microsoft will work with a limited number of partners and not pursue other channels.

“Microsoft's offer of free AV speaks to the larger issue about AV beingcommoditized and putting the screw to those larger vendors who haveantiquated, slower, expensive solutions,” Eric Schultze, CTO, ShavlikTechnologies, told in an email message.

The new iteration, first announced in November 2008, is said to come with a smaller footprint so it will not slow down users' systems while it runs anti-virus scans.

"I think MSE will be an efficient solution," Roger L. Kay, president, Endpoint Technologies Associates, told on Friday in an email. "It's disaggregating AV from the rest of the security equation and making it a base part of the OS. Microsoft is in as good a position as anybody to maintain a huge and growing signature database and refine behavioral analysis and response."

It's possible, Kay said, that taking the heart and soul of security, the AV function, and giving it away will affect McAfee, Symantec and Trend Micro negatively. "The other functions they bundle into a more comprehensive security product may not be enough to pull much of an audience with AV off the table. But from the user's point of view, Security Essentials is the right thing, since it will do the AV job quietly and automatically."

"Our goal is to create an enjoyable, safe, and more trusted computing experience for all Windows users," Theresa Burch, director of product management, Microsoft Security Essentials, told on Friday. "Through this new anti-malware offering, Microsoft is helping to ensure a positive Windows experience by removing barriers to protection that will allow more consumers worldwide access to a trusted and easy-to-use security solution."

The initial feed is being distributed in English-speaking countries, as well as Brazil, Israel and China. It will be available from the Microsoft site.

"What people really want is safe computing and not some protective armor that weighs so much that when they fall off their horse, they can't get up off the ground," said Kay.

"Ultimately, [MSE] is a good thing for consumers, meaning more choices are available to them for anti-virus," Wang said.

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