Norton AntiVirus: The readers strike back

Our reviews provoke plenty of reader feedback - but one company in particular is way out in front for complaints

When we revamped ZDNet UK's Reviews channel last year, one of the key bits of new functionality was the reader rating system. After reading a review and using the product yourself, you can now give it a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, add a one-line summary of your opinion, or -- if you feel like it -- write a detailed comment hundreds of words long. You haven't been slow in coming forward with your opinions: to date, we have received over 1,500 comments worth publishing since October 2003.

There's a great deal of variety in what people say and the way that they say it: feedback ranges from a simple thumbs-up or down plus a one-liner, to a carefully crafted 400-word critique. But as the weeks go by, and readers get their hands on products, it's interesting to see trends emerge from the chatter. Often the reviewer's judgement is confirmed, occasionally it's disputed; and sometimes a problem will come to light that wasn't picked up during the review period -- we get review products for a couple of weeks, but you live with the products you buy. The malfunctioning camera on early examples of Sony's VAIO PCG-TR1MP notebook was a notable example. More recently, we're getting a lot of comment on the buggy nature of Pinnacle's Studio 9 video editing application.

However, when it comes to reader feedback in bulk, one company's recent products take the biscuit (in fact, they take the whole packet of cookies and the tin too): step forward Symantec and its 2004 versions of Norton AntiVirus and Norton Internet Security. Unfortunately (for Symantec), the overwhelming majority of this comment is negative: at the time of writing, 94 percent of reader ratings for NAV 2004 give it the thumbs-down, while 87 percent of voters on NIS 2004 are similarly minded. What on earth is going on?

The most common gripe with NAV 2004 is that it hogs system resources and slows PC performance -- some users report their machines slowing to a crawl and becoming practically unusable. Others fail to get as far as actually running the program, as installation and activation problems are the next most frequent complaint. Symantec's technical support also comes in for a regular bashing: the online knowledgebase is too much base and not enough knowledge, emails take too long to elicit a response, telephone support is too expensive. Then there's the automatic update feature -- one of Symantec's innovations and an absolute must for antivirus software: some readers report problems with that as well. It's a similar story with NIS 2004, which includes NAV along with Norton Personal Firewall and Norton AntiSpam.

This all makes for sorry reading, especially considering the long and previously honourable pedigree of Norton-branded products going right back to the early days of DOS-based PCs.

At this point, a note of caution is in order. NAV and NIS are relatively complex utilities that are installed on a wide range of PC platforms by thousands of users of varying technical competence (although our respondents include more than one who describe themselves as IT managers). So it's perhaps not surprising that things occasionally go awry. Our reader response pages may simply be an outlet for a disgruntled but vocal minority: on the other hand, a mass market product should be suitable for the masses no matter what technicalities lie beneath the surface.

Naturally we invited Symantec to respond to the torrent of reader criticism for its 2004 products. Here's a précis of the company's response (you can read Symantec's response in full on the next page).

First, Symantec echoes our point about the disgruntled minority: 'Reader feedback threads are not always the most efficient way to reflect the overwhelming number of satisfied customers versus the comparatively small number of users who may experience an issue with their product.'

However, the company does acknowledge that problems can occur: 'It is common for some of our users to experience and communicate perceived problems with the product, especially if it has recently launched.'

But naturally, Symantec stands by the efficiency of its support operation: 'Symantec has invested extensively in Web-based technical support, which answers customer questions quickly and easily, and Symantec's own research shows that more than 70 percent of customers are able to find answers to their questions online. Customers may also submit inquiries free of charge via email or they can use our fee-based telephone support services.'

So there you have it. We'll leave you to make up your own minds. If you're doubtful about Symantec's latest antivirus and Internet security products, then fortunately there's still plenty of choice -- this is one utility market that hasn't been killed off by Microsoft buying up a product and incorporating it into Windows (although this is probably only a matter of time following the company's purchase of GeCAD Sofware last year).

In the meantime, keep posting your ratings for products that we've reviewed. You're doing a great job.

Here is the full text of Symantec's response to ZDNet UK's reader ratings for Norton AntiVirus 2004 and Norton Internet Security 2004:

Symantec would like to thank ZDNet for alerting us to the comments regarding the Norton branded consumer products. In the majority, there is not enough specific detail for Symantec to adequately identify any possible underlying issues, but we do encourage users who are experiencing any product issues to consult our free email technical support, where they can provide specific information, allowing us to fully investigate reported problems. Reader feedback threads are not always the most efficient way to reflect the overwhelming number of satisfied customers versus the comparatively small number of users who may experience an issue with their product. Symantec conducts extensive internal quality assurance testing and external beta testing of its products and is committed to creating the highest quality Internet security solutions possible.

Symantec stands firmly behind the quality of its 2004 Norton products and has millions of customers around the world who are protecting their computers from Internet threats using Norton AntiVirus 2004 and Norton Internet Security 2004. It is common for some of our users to experience and communicate perceived problems with the product, especially if it has recently launched. Symantec takes any reported cases of product difficulties very seriously and they are thoroughly investigated by our technical support and quality assurance teams. If Symantec does discover an issue with the product, we quickly create free patches for users to download to rectify the problem. Symantec is confident that the vast majority of users are able to use the 2004 product with great success.

If a customer experiences a problem while using Symantec software, there are a variety of methods to help resolve their support issues. Symantec has invested extensively in Web-based technical support, which answers customer questions quickly and easily, and Symantec's own research shows that more than 70 percent of customers are able to find answers to their questions online. Customers may also submit inquiries free of charge via email or they can use our fee-based telephone support services. Symantec takes its users' customer service and technical support needs very seriously and we evaluate customer satisfaction on a regular basis and are always looking for ways to improve our support services.

Symantec customer services and technical support can be accessed online at www.symantec.com/eusupport/, where the extensive knowledgebase guides users through installations, troubleshooting and subscription queries. We strongly encourage all users to make this their first point of call with any query, but customers who are unable to resolve their query, either through the knowledgebase or via direct email to a support technician, can contact the Symantec customer service helpline number on 0207 616 5600.