Microsoft: A Killer App That Could Kill the Competition

Its entry into the antivirus market has rivals spooked

It's a great time to be in the antivirus business. In August, two separate bugs laid low millions of PCs around the world, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. Both exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. And on Sept. 10, Microsoft warned of yet another security hole in Windows that could lead to a new bout of bugs. All that has sent sales of antivirus software soaring. So which company stands to benefit the most from the surging demand for security software? That's right: Microsoft.

The software giant recently closed a deal that could help it dominate consumer antivirus software. On Sept. 3, Microsoft acquired the technology of GeCAD Software, a Romanian software maker, for an undisclosed sum. Analysts expect Microsoft to bundle GeCAD's software with the next iteration of Windows, due out in 2005. That could virtually eliminate competition in the consumer market for antivirus software now dominated by Symantec (SYMC ) Corp., Network Associates (NET ) Inc., and others. Says Laura Koetzle, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.: "Microsoft will eventually monopolize the business."

There's more than a little irony in that. Critics have long blamed Microsoft for much of the virus epidemic, arguing that the company has worried less about security than about getting new products out the door. Vulnerabilities have made Windows and the Office word-processing and spreadsheet program favored hacker targets. If Microsoft wrote better software, critics say, the problem would largely go away. The prospect of Microsoft making money from its own shortcomings has prompted some cynical chatter in the industry. "The fear is of the fox guarding the henhouse," says Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc.

What's behind the move? It's not the money: The $2.2 billion antivirus business is chicken feed to a company that last year generated $32.2 billion in revenues. But Microsoft badly wants to protect its virus-battered reputation. It could do so by convincing users to take advantage of antivirus software and regularly download its patches. According to Microsoft research, 63% of home PC users either don't have antivirus software or are using obsolete programs. "My focus is on the people who aren't currently protected," says Mike Nash, vice-president of Microsoft's security business unit.

Microsoft is providing few specifics about its antivirus strategy. But analysts expect it to follow the existing industry model: selling subscriptions to a service allowing consumers to update their antivirus protection as new strains of malicious code emerge. "That's certainly the thinking we have," says Nash.

Of course, rivals won't hand over the consumer market without a fight. But they're sufficiently realistic to know that their best bet lies in the corporate market, where Microsoft will pose less of a threat. Corporate servers often run non-Windows operating systems, and Microsoft has no plans to make its security software work with rival products. What's more, many corporate buyers are leery of Microsoft's engineering. "The general response in the corporate world is no one trusts Microsoft security," says Gene Munster, senior research analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray (USB ).

In the consumer market, by contrast, software that's easiest to use, even if it isn't technically the best, tends to win out. And since Microsoft's products probably will be bundled into Windows, it will have a big advantage. Few believe that including antivirus software in Windows will violate antitrust laws. What potential rivals fear is that Microsoft will use its market power to thwart them. "The question is, will they play fairly or will they abuse their monopoly position?" asks Symantec CEO John W. Thompson.

He and other rivals know they are facing a force more ominous than any virus. "When Microsoft enters an industry and includes the software in Windows, the sector disappears," says Steve Chang, CEO of antivirus software maker Trend Micro (TMIC ) Inc. It's a lesson the software industry knows all too well.

By Jay Greene in Seattle, with Jim Kerstetter in San Mateo, Calif., and Steve Hamm in New York

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.