Microsoft Debuts Free Antivirus Software Beta

Here is a test by Brian Krebs of the Washington Post of the new Microsoft FREE anti-virus software, “Morro”.
Microsoft on Tuesday released a beta version of its new free anti-virus offering, Microsoft Security Essentials (a.k.a “Morro”). My review, in short: the program is a fast, easy to use and unobtrusive new addition to the stable of free anti-virus options available today.

MSE is basically the next generation of Microsoft’s Windows Live Onecare anti-virus and anti-spyware service, but without all of the extras, such as a firewall, data backup solution and restore or PC performance tuning (Microsoft announced in Nov. 2008 that it would stop selling Onecare through its retail channels at the end of June 2009).
The toughest part was getting the program installed. MSE can run on Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 (both 32-bit and 64-bit versions), but the program failed to install on an XP Pro system I tried to use as my initial test machine — leaving me with nothing more than a failure message and cryptic error code that didn’t turn up anything in an online search.

Fortunately, it installed without issue on my Windows 7 Beta system. Interested users should note that installing MSE requires that the would-be user’s system passes Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy tool, which checks to make sure it is being installed on a licensed version of Windows. Would-be users also will need to register for or already have a free Windows Live (or Hotmail) account in order to download the program.

After installation, MSE spends a couple of minutes downloading additional files, and then prompts the user to perform a “Quick Scan.” True to its name, that scan took less than 10 minutes on my test system. A full scan, however, took about 45 minutes on a relatively new install of Windows 7.
Anti-virus products are notorious for sucking up system resources, but you’d be forgiven for forgetting this program is even running. It barely used more than 4 MB of system memory for the entire time I tested it, including during scans.

By default, MSE scans archived files (.zip, e.g.), and creates a system restore point before deleting any files that set off alarms. The one scanning option not checked by default is to scan removable drives — such as USB drives — for viruses. But users can enable this option.

The program is not just an on-demand scanner: It includes real-time protection, which Microsoft says “alerts you when viruses, spyware and other potentially unwanted software attempts to install itself or run on your computer.”

In addition, MSE monitors file and program activity on your computer, and automatically scans all downloaded files and attachments. If it finds something, it will ask you what to do with the suspect file, and if the user takes no action after 10 minutes, Microsoft will decide what to do with the file(s) according to its default actions. Out of the box, it schedules a scan every Sunday at 2:00 a.m., but only if the PC is idle at that time.

A great deal has been written so far about the potential for MSE to unseat established giants in the anti-virus industry. It’s too soon to say whether that will happen, or how Microsoft’s new offering will measure up in tests against real-life malicious software, tests that are beyond the scope of this review.

Personally, I doubt whether MSE will have much of an impact on the anti-virus market as a whole. If anti-virus industry players fall by the wayside in the coming years, it will be because they either get gobbled up by their (non-Microsoft) competitors, or they fail to adapt to the latest threats.

Each time the issue of Microsoft throwing its weight around in the security space arises, it invariably raises the same issues of trust, privacy and efficacy. Allow me to address a few of the common themes, in the context of MSE:

Microsoft made the operating system, so it’s probably best equipped to produce software capable of defending its weaknesses: The truth is, Microsoft is continually defending the weaknesses in Windows. Every month, it ships new patches to fix security and stability problems in its software that it didn’t know about until bad guys or researchers unearthed them and proved they were exploitable. What’s more, Microsoft is in no more advantageous a position vis-a-vis other anti-virus makers to tell which tricks the bad guys will pull out of their hats next.

Microsoft is responsible for the same buggy software that lets the bad guys break in, so why would you trust them to also do a good job defending your PC against malware?: This is a fair question, but the folks asking this very question probably will never install this software anyway.

And, while I don’t believe Microsoft has the time or the inclination to go rooting through users’ systems for personal information, the disclaimer for the default “Basic membership” in Microsoft SpyNet that ships with MSE also isn’t likely to reassure those who doubt the company’s intentions. It reads:
“Send basic information to Microsoft about software that Microsoft Security Essentials detects, including where the software came from, the actions that you apply or that Microsoft Security Essentials applies automatically, and whether the actions were successful. In some instances, personal information might unintentionally be sent to Microsoft. However, Microsoft will not use this information to identify you or to contact you.”

Microsoft is only offering this product so that it can gain a foothold in the security software market, after which time it will start charging people to protect their computers whilst strong-arming its competition: Microsoft has said it plans to continue offering MSE for free. And for all of the reasons stated above, I don’t believe Microsoft’s offering of a free anti-virus product is going to steal too many paying customers away from other products. After all, there are plenty of other free anti-virus products available, including AVAST! Home Edition, Avira’s AntiVir, AVG Free, ClamWin, PCTools, and Panda’s new Cloud Antivirus offering, to name but a few.

I suspect Microsoft is offering this software for reasons part public relations and part self-preservation: Redmond knows that anything it can do to ensure that there are fewer malware-infested PCs out there is a good thing. And let’s face it, for whatever reason — even with the impressive number of free anti-virus offerings out there already — a dangerous number of Windows users continue to use the operating system without any kind of anti-virus software installed. At least with its brand recognition, Microsoft has a good chance of changing that reality to some degree.

One final note, if you’re interested in trying out this software, you probably want to move pretty quickly. According to ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft intends to make this beta available only to the first 75,000 downloaders in the United States, Brazil or Israel.

By Brian Krebs | June 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET