Microsoft does an about-face; offers free Security Essentials to small businesses

In an about-face, Microsoft is now planning to offer its free Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) antivirus/antimalware suite to small businesses, and not just consumers.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In an about-face, Microsoft is now planning to offer its free Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) antivirus/antimalware software to small businesses, and not just consumers.

Starting in early October, Microsoft will allow small businesses to install MSE on up to 10 PCs for free. If they need antimalware/antivirus for more than 10 PCs, Microsoft is still pushing them to consider its Forefront line of products.

Offering MSE to small businesses is a change in policy. In May of this year, I had a number of small-business customers and partners asking me whether Microsoft would support them using MSE, since the company's position had been that MSE was a consumer-only product. Microsoft execs told me no, repeating that "Microsoft Security Essentials continues to be available for consumers and home-based businesses.  The Microsoft Security Essentials OEM Pre-installation Kit (OPK) was made available to OEM partners as a way to offer a pre-installed security solution on home use PCs."

Microsoft was attempting to push small-business customers -- other than "small-home-based businesses with only a few individually managed PCs" -- to use its paid Forefront line of products. (I'm unclear what today's announcement signifies about Microsoft positioning of Forefront and have asked for a comment. No word back so far.) Microsoft officials say the move has nothing to do with its positioning of Forefront.)

So what's behind today's change? It's partially about small businesses being unable and/or unwilling to pay for security software, the Softies acknowledge. But it's also about licensing.

"This extended availability to small businesses centers on a change to the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) that allows small business customers to legally download the software onto individually managed business PCs," a spokesperson said, via an e-mailed statement.

The line between MSE and Forefront client (and its still-unfinished successor, Forefront Endpoint Protection) has been a bit murky, other than the face MSE is free. Microsoft delivered new betas of both the next release of MSE and Forefront Endpoint Protection in June of this year, with execs committing that both would ship in final form before the end of this calendar year.

The new beta of MSE included Windows Firewall integration (allowing users to turn on or off the Windows Firewall during setup); Internet Explorer integration for additional protection against Web-based attacks; an updated anti-malware engine; and network inspection system functionality to help fend off network-based exploits.

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