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Column Microsoft has jumped into the anti-spyware market, but is this a new approach to thwarting bugs, or is it gearing up to profit from a dubious industry it helped create?

The ink is barely dry from Microsoft's acquisition of the GIANT Company Software, and already they are offering the first public beta release of a new application called Microsoft Anti-Spyware. In other words, Microsoft is getting into the anti-spyware market in a big way. What does this mean for customers?

Part of me wants to applaud Microsoft and say that this is a very good thing for their customers, albeit a move that is long overdue. The other part of me says that this is a band-aid approach and a funny way for them to admit defeat - because it's holes in Microsoft's operating system that built the entire spyware industry to begin with. What does this mean for the security industry, and where are we headed with spyware? I'll try to explore both sides of the fence.

Good for customers

It's nice to see Microsoft attack the spyware issue head-on. GIANT's anti-spyware offering has received some favorable reviews, and Microsoft's Anti-Spyware first public beta still has GIANT's name written all over it. Installing the software reveals a clean interface with easy-to-use controls and a strangely familiar set of buttons. It looks good.

The license agreement for Microsoft Anti-Spyware identifies spyware using a new Microsoft term, Potentially Unwanted Software (PUS). I love it, it's so Microsoft. In effect, Microsoft will identify all the PUS inside your Windows computer, and help you squeeze it out. Great.

Anti-spyware applications require regular updates. To that end, MS Anti-Spyware's default settings look for updates on a daily basis. And for now, it appears that Microsoft will offer these updates for free -- at least for the foreseeable future. Once the product is out of the beta stage, though, things could certainly change.

What if they start charging a subscription fee for the updates? It only makes sense. This is a lucrative market and a potential recurring revenue stream worth billions of dollars, which might be too sweet to pass up. The anti-virus companies in comparison are already making billions of dollars by charging for subscriptions for their own weekly updates. Why shouldn't Microsoft jump on the bandwagon? A subscription model seems to be the holy grail of software licensing, as we've seen from so many products already.

Here's my prediction on how Microsoft will tackle the spyware market, moving forward. MS Anti-Spyware looks like an excellent product. By offering it for free now and soon bundling it with every new computer, similar to Internet Explorer, two years from now Microsoft Anti-Spyware could easily own the lion's share of the market, at which point they can choose to start charging for those weekly updates you have come to rely on. It will also help inch them towards licensing their OS and its updates on a pure subscription basis, something that they've already done to a large extent with their Enterprise license agreements. But from now until then, at least your computer will be protected, and safe. And in the interim, their approach to security patches with Internet Explorer and the rest of the operating system will remain the same.

Ridiculous or absurd?

Is Microsoft's entrance into the anti-spyware industry good for customers? Probably. But the cynic in me also looks at this as a rather ridiculous response to the problem - or a set of problems that they are simply unable to fix: massive holes in their browser and fundamental flaws in their operating system that they cannot stay on top of. Oh, some of us have talked about this many times before, but little has changed. They might as well start building more standalone applications on top of all the holes, if that's the only way to fix them.

Can you really prevent the exploitation of holes in a browser and operating system using a standalone application? Maybe. The people over at PivX seem to think so. The anti-virus companies are making billions in subscription fees, and they're slowly starting to address spyware as well. Today anti-spyware companies all offer real-time, proactive detection, just like MS Anti-Spyware. This is generally effective. But isn't this simply the wrong approach to the problem?

It's like selling people a toaster that could catch fire at any time, but then offering a free fire extinguisher to put out those fires as required. Is this the best they can do?

Perhaps the new MS Anti-Spyware application is just a stop-gap solution until Longhorn comes out in a few years. But I'm not holding my breath. Instead, let's all follow Microsoft's lead: admit defeat now, and then figure out how to profit from the epidemic you helped create.

I think spyware is going to be with us for a very, very long time.

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

Kelly Martin has been working with networks and security for 18 years, from VAX to XML, and is currently the content editor for Symantec's independent online magazine, SecurityFocus.

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