When you look at it, Microsoft probably had no choice. As you know, in the past the company has tried to undercut its competition by bringing out free products that other companies asked Windows users to pay for. Certainly it worked with Internet Explorer, although the truth is that it was, in those days at least, superior to Netscape.
At the same time, Windows users are having a rough time of it these days. Spyware, viruses, and if you don’t watch out, your PC may be converted to a spam bot before your eyes. That’s a computer taken over by spammers to send their junk to even more unwary recipients. In fact, I’ve heard estimates that half the spam circulated these days is spread by unwary PC owners who have allowed their computers to be hijacked.
When Bill Gates announced a “trustworthy computing” initiative for Microsoft a few years back, lots of Mac users chuckled. But without a concerted effort to make its software more secure, millions of PC users out there were in serious danger. Or course it would also hurt its bottom line. The effort seems to have had a mixed success. The Windows XP SP2 update has made PCs more secure, but you still have to be on guard for new security problems by downloading the latest patches and keeping antivirus and antispyware software up to date. And that’s not always a simple proposition.
Now if you want to protect your Windows box, there are a number of good products out there that’ll get the job done. If anything, the companies selling these products have prospered, but that may be poised for a change, now that Microsoft has decided to give away spyware blocking software free of charge. How can a company compete with free?
Gates dropped the bombshell at the annual RSA Conference, an event for computer security experts. Now if you haven’t used Windows, maybe spyware doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, but these are little programs that can track a PC user’s Web surfing and blast pop-up ads with abandon. The end result is constant annoyance, along with much slower performance. More insidious spyware can also steal personal information, such as credit card numbers and passwords.
The new software, dubbed Microsoft AntiSpyware for lack of something original, is already available for download in beta form. The final version will also be distributed free of charge, although there will be an enhanced version that will be sold at retail to business users. And, by the way, Microsoft is also working on antivirus software, for release by the end of the year.
While putting a brave face on the situation, this turn of events clearly won’t sit well with the companies that already sell security software for Windows, such as McAfee and Symantec. In fact, Symantec has already released a statement claiming that “As long as there is a level playing field, we welcome that competition.”
But if the competition is free, what then? In the end, perhaps Microsoft didn’t have much of a choice. As more and more Windows users become absolutely disgusted with the situation, the Mac alternative is becoming a lot more attractive. In addition to going after this market with the Mac mini, Apple appears poised to reinvigorate its dormant “Switchers” campaign, if the announcement at its Web site is any indication.
It may take a while to see how this plays out, but this isn’t the only development to emerge from the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA. This summer, version 7 of Internet Explorer is supposed to be ready for testing. This update, designed strictly for Windows XP users, is supposed to contain new security enhancements. No doubt the rise of Firefox and other alternative browsers, and the erosion of Internet Explorer’s market share, also had something to do with it.
Of course, there won’t be a similar update for the Mac version of Internet Explorer, since development of new versions stopped a while back. Besides, except for those sites that require a Microsoft browser, how many if you really use it anymore? And on the Windows side of the universe, will PC users really trust Microsoft to finally try to do right by its customers?
Now I realize many of you don’t care what happens on the Windows platform. If it self-destructs, so be it. After all, isn’t Microsoft the enemy, the evil empire that dominates the PC market with an inferior operating system ripped off from Apple? But that’s besides the point. Millions and millions of Windows boxes are in use at businesses both small and large around the world. Billions of dollars are lost each year because of security problems. Saying it serves them right for using the wrong operating system isn’t going to make those businesses run more efficiently. Besides, switching to a Mac may not be so hard for the home or small business user, but it is a big and expensive project for a company with lots of PCs in regular use.
In the end, some of those businesses may desert Windows anyway. But until that happens, having a more secure environment in which to run a business computer doesn’t just help Microsoft. It helps a company remain in business and it helps ensure that its employees receive regular paychecks.
I often wonder, in fact, how many businesses have gone under, how many people have become unemployed, because of those rampant security problems on the Windows platform. Has anyone done such a survey?
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