Microsoft Readies Free Security Software


The free product represents Microsoft’s latest swing at the consumer security market, which is dominated by vendors such as Symantec and McAfee

Say hello to Microsoft Security Essentials.

Microsoft plans to let the newborn brother of its Windows Live OneCare product come out to play next week. Starting 23 June, Microsoft will make a beta version of Security Essentials—code-named Morro—available for download. The offering is slated for general availability later in 2009.

Under the hood, the software keeps its focus on fighting viruses, rootkits and other malware and doesn’t deal with firewalls or data backup like its predecessor OneCare. The slimmed-down nature of the offering has been one of Microsoft’s key selling points and gives it a much smaller download size than other security products.

In addition to daily signature downloads, Microsoft Security Essentials validates suspicious files against newly identified malware in near-real time by querying the Dynamic Signature Service. Actions from unknown sources such as unexpected network connections, attempts to modify privileged parts of the system or the downloading of known malware all trigger requests for updates from the Dynamic Signature Service, according to the company.

To help combat rootkits, Microsoft has built in a number of technologies, including the monitoring of the integrity of kernel structures and support for direct file-system parsing to help identify and remove malicious programs and drivers hidden from the file system. In addition, the rootkit removal technology dynamically loads a new kernel mode driver as part of the cleaning process

Rivals in the security space have already begun taking shots at Microsoft’s play, which was largely characterised by industry analysts as evidence of the failure of Windows Live OneCare to unseat vendors such as Symantec when Microsoft announced plans for Morro in 2008.

“Microsoft’s free software is a stripped-down version of the OneCare product they pulled from the shelves with minor updates,” said Dave Cole, senior director of product management for Symantec. “The reality is that shareware and freeware vendors have been in the market for 20-plus years. The freeware space is crowded and Microsoft is just joining the fray.”

When Microsoft announced plans to discontinue retail sales of OneCare in 2008, officials said Morro was not meant to compete head-to-head with offerings from companies like McAfee and Symantec, but was intended to bring basic security to PC owners for free.

Windows Live OneCare subscribers will continue to receive updates and new signatures through the life of their subscriptions, Microsoft officials said. Retail sales of the product will end June 30.