Symantec CEO: 'Microsoft who?'

Security vendor is unfazed by Redmond, but an analyst warns the software giant could be a significant threat.

SAN FRANCISCO--Security vendor Symantec remains confident that it will withstand impending competition from Microsoft, but an analyst forecasts that the latter could prove to be a considerable threat, specifically in the consumer and SMB market segments.

According to Mark Nicolett, Gartner's vice president and research director for security and privacy, Microsoft's widely-anticipated Windows Live OneCare product could place the software vendor as a significant competitor for security players like Symantec in the consumer and small and midsize business (SMB) markets. Slated for release next month, the software encompasses antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall tools for Windows computers.

In an e-mail interview, Nicolett told ZDNet Asia: "Although Microsoft is targeting the consumer market initially, we believe the offering will be suitable for very small businesses without a dedicated IT staff and will be targeted to this market by mid-2007."

"Microsoft's impact will be felt first by the antivirus vendors in the consumer and SMB segments, but its offerings will grow up over the next five years to suit larger enterprises," he said.

The Redmond vendor is currently beta testing its enterprise security product, Client Protection, which it said will provide central management capabilities and work with its Active Directory and patch management tool.

"As Microsoft enters each segment, incumbent antivirus vendors face new competition and pricing pressure," Nicolett said, noting that the software giant will introduce the subscription-based antivirus and anti-spyware Client Protection offering, by the end of this year.

Symantec Chairman and CEO John W. Thompson, however, remains unfazed by the impending competition. When asked about the software giant's entrance into the security space, Thompson quipped: "Microsoft who?"

Speaking to reporters at the company's annual Vision conference here Tuesday, he acknowledged that meeting Microsoft head-on as a competitor in the market is "inevitable", but it will not be tricky.

Symantec's strategy on competing with the world's largest software company runs on three key components: "out-innovate" Microsoft, tap on Symantec's global brand and increase marketing investment.

"We know more about security than [Microsoft] ever will," he said. "Our track record is our strength… We want to make sure we use the strength of our global brand as a way to differentiate us from them."

"We protect more people than anyone else in the world," Thompson said. "Our brand is synonymous with security. Microsoft is synonymous with a lot of things, but security is not one of them".

Symantec invests 15 percent of its annual gross revenues on research and development, he added. It also tracks vulnerabilities in more than 30,000 technologies including operating systems and software applications, from over 4,000 vendors. It monitors 25 percent of the world's e-mail through a network that has more than 24,000 sensors in 180 countries worldwide.

But track record alone will not be enough, Thompson said, referring to Microsoft's deep pockets and often large-scale product marketing activities.

To better compete, Symantec will be pumping in resources and investment "much more" this year on marketing, and "telling the story of Symantec", he added. The company will also be looking to leverage on its distribution network across the globe.

"I'm not convinced that just because Microsoft enters the market, it's a foregone conclusion that they will win," Thompson said. "[It's] quite the contrary."

He revealed that Symantec will be unveiling a new concept, called Security 2.0, that will further strengthen its footprint against Microsoft. He did not, however, divulge details about what form Security 2.0 would take, preferring instead to leave that responsibility to Enrique Salem, the company's senior vice president of consumer products and solutions, who will be presenting a keynote at the conference over the next two days.

Amrit T. Williams, Gartner's research director, told ZDNet Asia: "Microsoft's entry into the security market puts significant pressure on companies like Symantec to innovate and offer integrated suite solutions at the desktop."

Looking beyond just antivirus protection, he said that enterprises now deploy a multitude of security tools including anti-spyware, personal firewall and host-based intrusion prevention.

Thompson agreed: "We've moved past the days where backup and clustering technologies were sufficient to protect the data center, and where antivirus software and a firewall were all that was required to protect the desktop."

"Today, you need a broad set of solutions designed to protect your infrastructure, information and interactions," he said, highlighting the importance of not only protecting an enterprise's network and data, but also the way it interacts including via instant messaging tools and online collaboration.

Williams said: "Enterprises are looking for an integrated, centrally managed solution to administer multiple agents at the desktop. And incumbent security vendors like Symantec are in a good position to deliver this functionality, especially since Microsoft has been poor at providing centralized management in enterprise environments.

"This advantage, however, does not translate to the consumer market where incumbent security vendors like Symantec face aggressive competition from Microsoft, as well as security provided through the Internet service providers."

And while Symantec has become the largest provider of security and storage products from its merger with Veritas, it still needs to provide guidance on an integrated strategy, Williams said. In addition, the company has yet to fully integrate many of its smaller acquisitions, especially in the areas of end-point security, he added.

According to Symantec CTO Ajei Gopal, products that have been integrated with technologies from Veritas are "most evident" in the areas of messaging and e-mail archival, data management and policy management.

"What we're seeing is a steady progression [of product integration]," he said. "We have a portfolio of products and we'll take the best of our assets and move forward with that."

"We've made tremendous progress in the last 10 months as one company… it's no longer what we do with the merger but how we execute as one [organization]."

McAfee last year also underscored its confidence in competing with Microsoft.

ZDNet Asia's Eileen Yu reported from San Francisco.

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