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Antivirus firms shrug at Microsoft's free security suite

"Business as usual" appears to be the cautious response from some of Redmond's security competitors, including McAfee, Symantec, AVG, Sunbelt, and Kaspersky.

Updated at 1:15 p.m. PST Wednesday with comment from Symantec and at 11:45 a.m. PST Thursday with comments from McAfee and Kaspersky.

For some security companies, Microsoft's decision to offer a free anti-malware product, code-named Morro, won't result in a dramatic change in how they do business.

Morro will be available in the second half of 2009 and will protect against viruses, spyware, rootkits, and Trojans, according to Microsoft.

"With OneCare's market share of less than 2 percent, we understand Microsoft's decision to shift attention to their core business," Joris Evers, director of worldwide public relations for McAfee, said in an e-mail.

As for confronting a free malware solution from a software giant, Evers said, "With more malware attacks than ever before, we believe our advanced technology, commitment to consumer education, superior protection, dedicated focus on security, and our 20-plus years in this business will provide consumers the confidence to choose McAfee as their trusted adviser and expert in security."

Justin Priestley, senior vice president of consumer sales at Kaspersky Lab's Americas division, also seemed not that concerned at the prospect of facing a free security solution from Microsoft.

"Having entered the U.S. consumer market at the same time as Microsoft, we initially viewed them as a formidable player. They've continued to hold a very low market share in the consumer market, and we don't expect the exit of OneCare to change the playing field drastically," Priestley said. "With the increasing threat malware and Web attacks pose, security is as important as ever, and we believe people will continue to choose antimalware software based on the quality of protection and will choose the highest-level product available."

Rowan Trollope, senior vice president of Symantec's consumer business, characterized the announcement as a "capitulation by Microsoft, and a reinforcement of the notion that it's simply not in Microsoft's DNA to provide high-quality, frequently updated security protection."

Here's the rest of his statement, provided via e-mail:

Consumers have already rejected OneCare, even though it entered the market at a lower price, because OneCare offered substandard protection and poor performance, as evidenced by scores of third party reviews. The offering only gained modest market share and ultimately was deemed unsuccessful in the marketplace.

Making a significantly scaled-back version of that same substandard security technology free won't change that equation. Simply put, innovation and protection matter. So even if it's free, the Microsoft "OneCare-light" offering will certainly fare worse than its predecessor, essentially putting consumers at increased risk without additional protection.

Additionally, our research clearly indicates that, after effective protection, what consumers care most about in a security product is performance. OneCare is widely recognized as one of the most egregious offenders in hogging system resources.

On Tuesday, Amy Barzdukas, senior director of product management for the Online Services and Windows Division at Microsoft, had dismissed similar criticism from McAfee. "If the current approach isn't working (as far as protecting consumers broadly), we need to go with a new approach," she said.

A representative for AVG Technologies, maker of AVG Antivirus, told CNET News on Wednesday, "We view this as a positive step for the AV (antivirus) landscape. AVG has believed in the right to free antivirus software for the past eight years."

The company said it will be "business as usual" and doesn't plan to make any changes to its own product offerings as a result. "Based on what Microsoft is planning to deliver, we don't feel the need to make any changes to our free product at this time," the company said.

Asked if AVG had any advice for Microsoft, the company said "consumers will use a free product if it's robust and it protects them. The product has to be easy to use, fast, unobtrusive, and be able to address the latest Web threats."

Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software, maker of Vipre Antivirus + Antispyware, said the move to get out of a profitable business appears to a capitulation on Microsoft's part. "This gives them a chance to do something altruistic while getting out of an unattractive business," he said. He noted that Microsoft will still be selling Microsoft Forefront, a collection of business security products.

Eckelberry said there remain two questions: One, how exactly will Microsoft distribute the product (will it consider bundling it with Windows 7)? And two, will the company make the application available through enterprise group policy management?

In the end, AVG said the market still needs to be educated. "Microsoft will have to do more than simply make the product available," the AVG representative said.

(CNET News' Elinor Mills contributed to this report.)