Is security software a protection racket?

Microsoft is offering its new Windows OneCare Live security service at an irresistible low price. So why isn't it free?

Last week, Microsoft released pricing and licensing details for its forthcoming Windows OneCare Live service.

Here are the relevant facts from the announcement:

  • The subscription-based service - which offers virus protection, a two-way firewall, a backup utility, system optimization, and (eventually) antispyware capabilities - is scheduled to go live in the U.S. in June.
  • The annual subscription price of $49.95 will cover up to three PCs.
  • If you sign up for the beta version and convert to a paid OneCare subscription between April 1st and April 30th, the price for the first year of service drops to $19.95.

I've been beta-testing the OneCare service for several months now, and it deserves a big thumbs-up for its target market of home users who want a no-fuss security solution. I'm also impressed that the base service is offered for use on up to three PCs. Microsoft already follows that practice for its Office Student and Teacher Edition, which allows "qualified educational users" to install and activate the software on up to three PCs.

A few things bother me about this announcement, however.

For starters, why isn't there a free antivirus component? Microsoft lists virus protection as one of the three "security essentials" in the Windows XP Security Center. Everything else in the OneCare Live package has a free equivalent, so why not this piece?

And how am I supposed to make an informed purchase decision based on effectiveness? With OneCare Live, as with virtually all its competitors, the only comparisons are based on features, eye candy, and reputation.

There's a long list of antivirus partners at Microsoft's Web site. After this announcement, I doubt that many are feeling much like partners. Especially when the announcement says:

We encourage you to take a look at what our competitors are offering – we’re confident that no one else is delivering a value like this for an “all-in-one” service on up to 3 PCs, like Windows OneCare Live.

I can already see the beginnings of an "arms war" among security software companies, with ads and whisper campaigns based on fear.

Two factors strongly influence Microsoft to charge for OneCare Live. For one thing, it costs a lot of money to run a 24/7 security response center, and someone has to pay for it. Perhaps more importantly, lawyers no doubt were involved in analyzing the antitrust aspects of this rollout. If Microsoft gives away a robust, full-featured security product, do they risk being hauled into court and charged with anti-competitive behavior?

Regardless, I wish that a basic version of OneCare Live were available as a free product for anyone running a compatible version of Windows. In this case, at least, I think there's a strong case for accepting security features as something that should be included in the base operating system. Go ahead and charge more for an upgraded version with better backup tools (like the capability to back up essential files online, a feature that's curiously lacking from this release). But please don't charge for basic protection.