A OneCare success story

Backup as a "set and forget" service is an idea whose time has come. Both Microsoft's OneCare and Symantec's Genesis have the right idea. A little more competition wouldn't hurt

A few years back, I asked a Microsoft product planner why the Windows Backup program wasn’t included as part of the default setup for Windows XP Home Edition. He told me that, based on survey data and instrumented research, the number of Windows users who actually back up their data is in “the low single-digit percentages.”

Maybe that’s all about to change. Microsoft’s Windows Live OneCare service is in beta now and scheduled for release before the end of the year, with a nearly irresistible cut-rate pricing offer ($20 for the first year for three PCs) for beta testers who sign up during the month of April and agree to convert to the paid service when it’s ready.

Symantec, McAfee, and several dozen more companies already provide plenty of competition in the security software space, especially for the core antivirus and firewall products. But the one piece of the security puzzle that’s been missing for most people is backup — a key feature of the OneCare offering.

I’ve been using OneCare for the past few months on my notebook, which until last week was my main working system. Thanks to a midweek disk crash, I had a chance to test its backup and restore capabilities under all-too-real-world circumstances. OneCare passed with flying colors. It took less than two minutes to restore my saved e-mail from the backup I made just before I left for a week’s worth of meetings in Scottsdale and Redmond. I lost most of the notes from my interviews and all e-mail I sent and received during the week, but the damage could have been much worse.

One of the key design decisions in OneCare was to make backups nearly transparent. With an external hard drive like the one I use, backups are automatic and require zero intervention from the user. (Backing up to CD or DVD isn’t automatic.) That’s a big contrast over most competing backup solutions, which are expensive, hard to use, and far from automated.

Until now, Symantec has pinned its backup strategy on Norton Ghost, a powerful but difficult-to-use program that costs $70 on its own and is bundled with the $100 Norton SystemWorks 2006 Premier. That’s not a very good deal for someone who just wants a reliable backup program. (McAfee doesn’t include any backup features at all.)

Sometime this fall, around the same time OneCare pops out of beta, Symantec is scheduled to release its all-in-one Genesis service, which covers the same ground as OneCare, with the useful addition of online backup to automatically store important files on a secure web-based storage system.

I’m glad to see some innovation, finally, in the backup category. With a “set and forget” service, most of the hassles of backing up go away. And it’s a natural addition to security software that actually has the potential to add value instead of simply protecting users from bogeymen.

I hope that Genesis and OneCare both get lots of competition. Anything that can convince people to do regular backups is a very good thing indeed.