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Long fuse for Microsoft's security challenge

As security firms brush off Microsoft's anti-spyware plans, analysts point out that over time, it could become a bigger threat.

As security companies brushed off any immediate threat from Microsoft's plan to give away anti-spyware tools, analysts noted that the software giant could yet become a force in the security market.

On Wednesday, security business leaders responded to Microsoft's announcement of its plan at RSA Conference 2005 by challenging the company's ability to offer technology that rivals existing tools. In that, they echoed Symantec CEO John Thompson, who said on Tuesday that his company's products could "whip" any security software that Microsoft has to offer.

While most acknowledged that Microsoft can quickly ramp up to build useful applications for battling spyware and other pests, the consensus among Microsoft's newest rivals was that the learning process would take years rather than months.

"It will take them some time to get to a point where they're truly competitive against people who have real experience in this field," said Gene Hodges, president of security software maker McAfee.

But analysts at Gartner said Microsoft is likely only in the early days of what will become a wider security software effort, including a push into the market for both consumers and businesses.

"Even as Microsoft ships its desktop antivirus and anti-spyware products later this year, this is simply one step in Microsoft's multipart strategy to deliver a comprehensive host-based security platform for its desktop and server operating systems during the next five years," Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald wrote in a research report published earlier this month.

That push could threaten an even wider range of security companies and technologies, as Microsoft moves past spyware, into different areas of the security market, experts said.

MacDonald calculated that the impact on rival security software makers will be significant, as Microsoft's move is likely to drive down prices of many off-the-shelf products and to reduce the cost to customers of renewing licenses for antivirus software and services.

Hodges said Microsoft's potential in the anti-spyware sector should not be underestimated. However, he believes companies such as McAfee have a head start that will be hard to overcome. The McAfee president also pointed out that there is cutthroat competition among providers already selling in the space.

"(Microsoft) is absolutely a serious competitor--but so is Symantec, and Cisco is a serious competitor on the network," Hodges said. "This is a 'welcome to the party' (for Microsoft). But let's see what they actually have for a customer in a broad-scale infrastructure."

Hodges said Microsoft was wise to purchase Giant Software to jump-start its anti-spyware efforts. However, he questioned whether the innovative spirit he admired in Giant would continue to flourish under its new owner. He estimated that it would take Microsoft as long as two years to improve on the technology it acquired via Giant but said the quality of its anti-spyware products will ultimately determine its success with customers.

"If it's a good product, it will do well--and I would think that people won't be prejudiced just because it's a Microsoft product, unless they live in Europe," Hodges said. "If the product is not the best, then that will also be known."

"At the end of the day, Microsoft is going to have to compete on how well they do the job, just like everybody else," he added.

Some software makers responded more aggressively to Microsoft's announcement, saying the company was to blame for many of the spyware and security problems consumers deal with.

Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at security specialist Webroot Software, said many RSA Conference attendees were "rolling their eyes" when Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates unveiled the anti-spyware push.

"(Microsoft) is trying to take advantage of a space that they're ultimately responsible for creating, so it makes sense for them to give away a product that addresses one of their major failings," Stiennon said. "At the same time, you get what you pay for. The product they acquired through Giant was half-baked when they bought it...There's going to be a learning curve."

Peter Firstbrook, an analyst at Meta Group, agreed that it will take time for Microsoft to polish its security technologies, but he said the company has done well to buy Giant and its latest addition, Sybari Software.

While Microsoft has had limited experience in building security software products, it has historically been hard to predict how the company's dominance of the desktop operating-system market can influence consumers to buy other products. Microsoft has previously utilized its position to package Web browsing and media player software with Windows at no additional cost.

Firstbrook said significant numbers of customers might find the company's products attractive, given that the antivirus industry has maintained pricing that is "artificially high." As a consequence, security protection tools have been slow to catch on, he said.

"What the antivirus companies are saying is that enterprises aren't too fond of the idea of using Microsoft as a security vendor, and they're probably right," Firstbrook said. "But there are also a lot of people, especially in the small and medium-sized business market, that are looking for someone like Microsoft to sell them low-cost product."