Free 'Morro' Anti-Virus To Replace Microsoft OneCare

Redmond is rolling out a free anti-virus software program for consumers that will compete with products made by Symantec and McAfee.

Redmond is rolling out a free anti-virus software program for consumers that will compete with products made by Symantec and McAfee. Code-named "Morro," the AV app is expected to be available by the end of 2009.

Microsoft, which unveiled Morro on Tuesday, also plans to phase out its subscription-based security and PC maintenance service called Windows Live OneCare.

Morro's release will protect a greater number of consumers, according to Microsoft's announcement. Critics, including competitors, see this as the death of Windows Live OneCare rather than the birth of something new.

"[Symantec] views [Microsoft's] announcement as a capitulation and a reinforcement of the notion that it's simply not in Microsoft's DNA to provide high-quality, frequently updated security protection," stated Rowan Trollope, Symantec's senior vice president of consumer business, in an e-mail.

The software giant said in its announcement that Windows Live OneCare will continue to be sold for Windows XP and Windows Vista at retail through June 30, 2009.

"Direct sales of OneCare will be gradually phased out when 'Morro' becomes available. Regardless of their method of purchase, Microsoft will ensure that all current customers remain protected through the life of their subscriptions," the statement said.

Time will tell on Microsoft's strategy, but one independent security vendor rep described it as a rebranding effort.

"I see nothing that tells me how Morro will be more or less effective than OneCare," said Tyler Reguly, security research engineer at nCircle. "It sounds like [Microsoft] spent time streamlining the efficiency of the anti-malware engine at the core of OneCare and is simply rebranding it on release."

Reguly added that he doesn't want to speculate on why the rebranding is occurring, but his best guess is that it's "due to stigma surrounding the Windows Live OneCare brand, which had numerous bad reviews and negative ratings in AV comparisons."

Microsoft describes Morro as utilizing less system resources than its OneCare predecessor, and it will have fewer features as well. It's designed to protect PCs that don't already have anti-virus programs installed. Gone are the process management and backup capabilities that came with OneCare.

From Shake-Up to Breakup?
Technologists had praised Microsoft's release of Windows Live OneCare when it made its debut in May of 2006. It was thought that OneCare would shake the applecart in the anti-virus market and reinvent the category by including backup and management features. At that time, AV vendors voiced concerns that Redmond would use its Windows market domination to push OneCare as it did Internet Explorer.

Such worries among competitors have dissipated. In 2007, Symantec held a 26.6 percent share of the $10 billion software security market. McAfee Inc., the runner up in the pack had 11.8 percent of the market, according to IT research firm Gartner.

"So even if it's free, the Microsoft 'OneCare-light' offering will certainly fare worse than its predecessor, essentially putting consumers at increased risk without additional protection," wrote Symantec's Rowan Trollope, in his e-mailed statement.

Serving the Underserved
Microsoft's perspective is that Morro will reach emerging markets that may be using entry-level PCs. Morro will be "architected for a smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources, making it ideal for low-bandwidth scenarios or less powerful PCs," according to Redmond's announcement.

"This new, no-cost offering will give us the ability to protect an even greater number of consumers, especially in markets where the growth of new PC purchases is outpaced only by the growth of malware," said Amy Barzdukas, senior director of product management for the Online Services and Windows Division at Microsoft, in a statement.

It's not clear how Microsoft will release Morro, but making it free is hardly a defeat for the company.

"With relatively insignificant marketing of OneCare, Microsoft still gained two percent market share in a couple of years. That's a large number of computers actually," said Randy Abrams, technical director of security firm ESET. "This decision to go to the free software is as far from a defeat signal as you can get."

Abrams added that the move simply "signals that Microsoft is willing to adopt different strategies to increase effectiveness."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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