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Microsoft's high-risk security strategy

Between a rock and a hard place

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Fighting to protect its operating system monopoly by making Windows more secure, Microsoft this year finds itself sitting between the rock of inevitable antitrust oversight, and the hard place of its reputation regarding security.

Bill Gates has said that the next big upgrade to Windows XP, Service Pack 2, will have personal firewall software in it, among other features. The Windows Firewall, while very likely to be less functional than those already on the market, will be on by default and will dissuade many consumers from parting with the $20 to $40 asked by vendors such as Network Associates, Symantec, Trend Micro, and Zone Labs.

Sound familiar? According to unconfirmed reports, the European Union is currently thinking about ordering Microsoft to break off Windows Media Player from the OS as part of proposed antitrust remedies, on the basis that its well-documented "leverage Windows" strategy could make RealPlayer the next Netscape.

Even while this is going on, Microsoft's chief software architect is telling security experts in California that yet another application, which has its own thriving market, will be bundled with Windows at no additional cost.

Protecting the consumer market

It's a truism on the Internet today that anybody who controls more bandwidth than you can turn your website off, on demand, via a denial of service attack, and that most DoS attacks leverage large slaved networks of unsecured residential Windows boxes. Windows Firewall, once all the inevitable vulnerabilities are ironed out of it, will probably be capable of fending off many hackers looking for drones, and of blocking outgoing DoS attacks.

Because it will be a part of Windows, it will mostly be used by that large segment of the consumer market that does not use a firewall. So if the world's Windows installed base is more secure, next time a disgruntled kid wants to take down SCO, the RIAA, or a small not-for-profit spam fighter, the potential size of his slave botnet could be smaller. Almost as a peripheral benefit, end users will be less prone to having their identities stolen.

The patent infringement trade-off

When analyzing the risks, Microsoft perhaps considered the software sales losses it is suffering because of its security track record. In addition to fixing bugs and writing better code, and by bundling security software with Windows, not only would Microsoft's image be improved but it would also help the Internet as a whole become more secure. Risk of being sued for patent infringement and antitrust violations could be considered an acceptable trade-off.

What a lot of security companies are likely concerned about is what Microsoft plans to do with the anti-virus technology it acquired from Romanian developer GeCad last summer. Antivirus is a more mature market, with billions of dollars in established recurring revenues riding on it. And there's a spot next to the Windows Firewall in XP SP2's forthcoming Security Center dashboard that is just aching to be filled by a Windows-bundled antivirus application. Microsoft has not yet revealed its intentions, but claims it has no intention of making such a bundle in SP2. The industry is watching intently.

Source: Datamonitor/ComputerWire

Related Research: Datamonitor, "Beyond the Perimeter Firewall", (BFTC0814)

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