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Rob Rosenberger

Microsoft joins the antivirus industry, part 2

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Friday, 25 June 2004 [continued from part 1] "TECHNOLOGY HAS STAGNATED for years under the antivirus cartel's reign," I muttered in my previous column. I then said Microsoft's decision to join the antivirus industry "could force companies to sell much better technology, strictly as a competitive move."
Who should we blame for more than a decade of stag­na­tion in anti­virus tech­no­logy? Can Micro­soft's new anti­virus divi­sion end the stagnation?
If you study my previous column, you'll notice I don't talk about "new" antivirus technologies. "Innovative"? Yes. "New"? No. In an earlier column, I explained how antivirus firms "could sell much better software if the public wanted to buy it ... but there's the rub. The public at large doesn't want better antivirus software," I moaned. "In fact, they abhor it." Antivirus technology has stagnated for more than a decade for this reason. I want you to think of a triangle. You know: a polygon with three corners. In one corner you have the vendors who sell antivirus products; in another corner you have the users who buy antivirus products; and in another corner you have the reviewers who give out "editor's choice" awards in the media. Let's call it "the triangle of stagnation."
The three corners of stagnation
So. Who should we blame for stagnation in antivirus technology? The vendors, the users, or the reviewers? You might want to blame the vendors. "After all, Rob, they've got better technologies waiting in the wings." Ah, but you can't blame the vendors — because (1) the reviewers won't review anything better than a scanner and (2) the users won't buy anything better than a scanner. Major antivirus vendors withdrew all other technologies from the market by ca.1991 because the computing world demanded scanning technology and nothing else.
Each time we try to blame one cor­ner of the "stag­na­tion tri­angle," we end up laying that blame on the other two corners!
Okay then, you might want to blame the users. "After all, Rob, they buy antivirus software knowing it will fail at the most critical moment." Ah, but you can't blame the users — because (1) the vendors don't sell anything better than a scanner and (2) the reviewers don't review anything better than a scanner. The antivirus market focuses on scanning technology and nothing else. Okay then, you might want to blame the reviewers. "After all, Rob, they influence the users' buying habits." I'll admit you could make a strong argument here — but only up through 1995. Now you can't blame the reviewers — because (1) the users got hooked on an "Addictive Update Model" and (2) the vendors milk the users like a cash cow. (A happy cash cow, I might add.) Both the addicts and their pushers want to see reviews on scanning technology and nothing else. Okay then, you might want to blame the vendors. "After all, Rob, they milk the cash cow of addiction." Ah, but you can't blame the vendors — because (1) the reviewers refuse to review anything better than a scanner and (2) the users refuse to buy anything better than a scanner. The antivirus market actively discourages the vendors from selling better antivirus technology. Okay then, you might want to blame the users. "After all, Rob, they ultimately must choose to break their addiction." Ah, but you can't blame the users — because (1) everyone (even those of us at Vmyths!) believes we need antivirus vendors and (2) the reviewers insist no feasible alternative technology exists. The antivirus market actively discourages the users from breaking their addiction. Okay then, you might want to blame the reviewers. "After all, Rob..."
YOU SEE THE problem here? {sigh} We can't really place the blame on any one group for the stagnation in antivirus technology.
You can't blame users for buying only scan­ners. Nor can you blame ven­dors for selling only what every­one wants.
Each time we try to blame one corner of the triangle, we end up laying that blame on the other two corners. Our longtime readers know the tobacco industry has looked at the antivirus industry's Addictive Update Model. Some readers might try to describe the two addictions using one triangle — with the tobacco & antivirus firms in one corner, the smokers & users in another corner, and the media in a third corner:
The three corners of addiction
(Yes yes yes, we could get into a looooong debate about the media's incestuous relationship with the tobacco industry in the early days. You couldn't use an equilateral triangle back then, if you catch my drift. I'll never forget the classic TV commercial where Ronald Reagan introduced a rising new actor, Charlton Heston, who talked about the refreshing smooth taste of... well, anyway, let's not digress.) "Waitaminit," you interject. "This shouldn't be a triangle, it's a rectangle! And the government belongs in the fourth corner!"
The four corners of addiction
Tobacco's triangle of addiction did indeed turn into a rectangle when the government later added its corner. The government saw itself as a paladin for addicted consumers and took it upon itself to (1) expose the detriments of smoking, (2) curtail cigarette advertising, and (3) remove the media from the tobacco industry's corner.
Tri­angles? Rec­tangles? Lines? In reality, anti­virus tech­no­logy follows an unending circle of stag­nation.
Microsoft can do what neither the government nor the media can do. They can break the unending circle. Now here comes the kicker. You can add a fourth corner to a triangle of tobacco addiction ... but you can't add a fourth corner to a triangle of antivirus addiction. You must accept the realities here. The government in & of itself doesn't smoke, but it does use antivirus products. And the government in & of itself is addicted to antivirus products. Big time. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, issues antivirus updates to its soldiers like they used to issue cigarettes. Heck, the American Forces Radio & Television Service runs free ads for antivirus software right after they run ads urging soldiers not to smoke! (I don't make this claim lightly.) The government in & of itself needs a paladin. But wait! It gets better. The media in & of itself doesn't smoke, but it does use antivirus products. And the media in & of itself is addicted to antivirus products. Big time. Even worse, the media has a fetish for juicy computer virus stories. What does every hysterical newswire tell you to do? "Update your antivirus software." In other words: free advertising. The media in & of itself needs a paladin, too. "Okay Rob, we see your point. The antivirus industry doesn't succumb to their own addiction, hence they're the only ones truly in control, thus we can pin the blame squarely on them." WRONG! Wrong, wrong, wrong. You now see antivirus technology's stagnation as a line with two ends...
The two ends of stagnation
...when in reality that line forms an unending circle of stagnation. You can't blame the users for buying only scanners — nor can you blame the vendors for selling only what everyone wants.
The unending circle of stagnation

BELIEVE IT, FOLKS. I wrote a thousand words and I drew five cheesy diagrams just to explain why we can't blame anyone in particular for an unending circle of stagnation in antivirus technology.
With all other things being equal, it doesn't make sense to switch anti­virus pro­ducts. But Micro­soft doesn't fit the cate­gory of "all other things being equal"...
Good thing I don't get paid by the word, eh? Now Microsoft comes along with a crazy notion to join the antivirus industry. This leads me back to what I said at the start of this column. Microsoft's decision could force antivirus firms to sell much better technology, strictly as a competitive move. Microsoft can do what neither the government nor the media can do. They can break the unending circle of stagnation in antivirus technology. If they succeed, the computing world will literally turn into a much safer place. Seriously, folks: how could we not want this to happen? Now, I don't expect Microsoft to lead the way with innovative technologies. Quite the contrary: I think they'll merely exploit the Addictive Update Model for the foreseeable future. But it could force antivirus firms to sell much better technology, strictly as a competitive move. "Waitaminit, Rob. Large companies find it notoriously difficult to switch antivirus products. You make it sound as if they'll switch even though they see no appreciable gain." An excellent observation. Yes: it costs a lot of time & effort to switch antivirus products. Among other things, you'd need to retrain the help desk employees and run a deinstall/reinstall on many critical servers. With all other things being equal, it doesn't make sense to switch antivirus products — even when an enterprise upgrades its IT infrastructure en masse in the name of standardization. Ah! But Microsoft doesn't fit the category of "all other things being equal." A large corporation can easily select a Microsoft product over a third-party product when it upgrades its IT infrastructure en masse. All in the name of standardization. These en masse upgrades happen more often than you might think. Just ask the folks at Dell or IBM. I believe antivirus firms will start to hear the one question they don't want to hear. "Why should we renew our contract with you when we could standardize on Microsoft?" Uh, because our company has fought viruses since 1988! "Well, your oh-so-mature product keeps missing all these new viruses in 2004..."
Memo to the anti­virus in­dus­try: "inno­vate or perish." Micro­soft will leave you no other choice.
Mark my words: antivirus vendors will need to unveil innovative technologies if they hope to keep their enterprise clients over the long term.
IN AN EARLIER column, I predicted the global antivirus industry will someday stand up as one and shout "eureka, the state of the art has advanced!" Let me remind you: I'll back the industry 110% when their marketers lie about the "sudden" technological advancement in antivirus software. I have to back them on it — simply because I can't blame them for it. Memo to the antivirus industry: "innovate or perish." Microsoft will leave you no other choice.