Microsoft Corp., a regular target for software attacks and viruses, is hoping to strike back with a weapon of its own. Microsoft is acquiring antivirus technology from a Romanian software company and plans to develop its own antivirus product, Microsoft said June 10.

The news could have significant implications for schools and colleges. For one thing, if Microsoft bundles internet security products with Windows, the market for stand-alone brands could dry up, seriously threatening the future of those independent firms that offer internet security products now.

Linux advocates perceive an even more immediate threat. They note the company—GeCAD Software of Bucharest—is a primary provider of RAV Antivirus for Mail Servers, a popular Linux security solution. According to IDG News Service, Microsoft plans to discontinue the RAV line after the acquisition is complete. GeCAD reportedly has 10 million users worldwide. The security company said it would support RAV users through the end of their current contracts.

“The move has observers speculating,” reported IDG, “about Microsoft’s ultimate intentions. They wonder why Microsoft wants technology that powers leading virus scanning tools for eMail servers on Linux platforms, which are rivals to Windows and Exchange.”

Microsoft said it simply wanted GeCAD’s technology and key personnel. “We acquired the assets and the technology because of the quality of the technology and because the team is a good fit,” Amy Carroll, group manager at Microsoft’s security business unit, is quoted as saying. “It would be hard to find an antivirus vendor who did not have products on multiple platforms.”

The systems administrator for Union College, a liberal arts college in Schenectady, N.Y., that runs some 4,000 Linux eMail accounts, is reportedly worried about the impending demise of RAV AntiVirus. “I researched antivirus solutions for a good eight months,” Michael Pate told IDG, “and this was the best deal for the money.” He said RAV saved his college up to $11,000, compared with the next most suitable product. “Now,” he said, “we’re going to start looking again.”

For the time being, at least, alternatives should be readily available. Microsoft faces direct competition in the lucrative antivirus market from a number of specialty software security companies. But the future of those companies is not as positive as it was before Microsoft’s GeCAD acquisition.

Microsoft plans to release its own antivirus product at some unspecified date, but according to Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s security business unit, the software giant has not decided whether basic antivirus technology will be bundled into its Windows operating system.

The company did indicate it will sell subscriptions to institutional customers and consumers for updated inoculation files that protect against new viruses. Microsoft needs to do more, Nash said, to protect its customers from viruses and other malicious programs. He said Microsoft will continue to work with security companies, such as Symantec Corp. and Network Associates Inc., which make the most popular antivirus programs for consumers.

The president of Network Associates, Gene Hodges, said Microsoft told his company it would not bundle antivirus capability into the Windows operating system.

Network Associates announced an alliance last month with Microsoft to share sensitive details about the latest computer threats facing Windows users. “We intend to keep up with the alliance unless Microsoft changes it plans from what they’ve told us,” Hodges said.

But some questioned Microsoft’s foray.

Michael Rasmussen, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in an interview with the Associated Press, compared Microsoft’s decision to a “mafia-type” protection racket, offering additional security to customers who pay extra for it.

“The world does not want Microsoft to be a security vendor; it wants Microsoft to provide secure products,” Rasmussen said.

Microsoft, which has struggled to improve its software security under its “Trustworthy Computing” campaign, has been sensitive to criticism about the susceptibility of its products to computer viruses.

The company has responded by tightening the security of its popular Outlook eMail software, but its reputation has largely hinged on consumers successfully using products outside Microsoft’s control.

Antivirus vendors have been painfully aware of what could happen if Microsoft moved into the business. Network Associates and Symantec, for example, have starkly warned investors their business could suffer dramatically if Microsoft decides to build antivirus features into Windows.

Network Associates cautioned in a November 2002 filing with U.S. regulators that such a move by Microsoft “could render our products obsolete and unmarketable.”

Symantec warned in a February 2003 securities filing that a decision by Microsoft to include features in Windows that compete with its core products “may decrease or delay the demand for certain of our products, including those currently under development.”

In a statement, Symantec said it was still weighing the ramifications of Microsoft’s announcement.

“While we still need to understand the full implications for this announcement, we applaud Microsoft’s efforts to develop an operating system upon which antivirus vendors can build more effective protection,” the company said.

Sophos Inc., another popular antivirus company, suggested that Microsoft might not realize how much effort and expense was involved in fighting viruses.

“Providing a viable antivirus solution to the market requires far more resources and commitment than most people realize,” said Chris Belthoff, senior security analyst at Sophos.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com

Network Associates Inc.
http://www.nai.com

Sophos Inc.
http://www.sophos.com

GeCAD Software
http://www.gecad.ro

Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.
http://www.union.edu