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Microsoft antispyware: Dominant or destructive?

Microsoft's free antipsyware product may be a tempting option, but can security wait two or more years until Redmond gets it enterprise-ready?

NEW YORK -- Just in time for the holidays: a shopping quandary.

Should enterprises shell out big bucks for antispyware software during their next buying cycles, or do they play a waiting game as Microsoft puts the finishing touches on its antispyware beta, which is expected to be included gratis in the next version of Windows?

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The beta is not enterprise-ready yet. The technology, acquired from Giant Software Co., is client only and companies won't deploy it without centralized management, which Microsoft is either developing or will acquire. Yet a free antispyware product is an enticing carrot for companies desperate for help combating spyware.

The enemy, meanwhile, has become a devious adversary. Spyware has evolved into more than a nuisance of pop-ups and productivity drains. Dangerous keyloggers are the payload of many spyware applications, stealing passwords, credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information.

All of this is throwing into question Microsoft's ability to be a disruptive force in the antispyware market, according to attendees at last week's Information Security Decisions conference in New York City.

"I don't think Microsoft is going to be disruptive; I think it's going to be ineffective," said David Adams, an applications specialist with Hershey Entertainment Resorts of Pennsylvania. Hershey used Giant's antispyware technology, in conjunction with freeware products Ad-aware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Giant's 97,000 signatures made it a formidable tool.

"But when Microsoft bought Giant, the product stopped being adaptive and productive," Adams said. "Spyware has developed into a totally different product today. If Microsoft is making changes [to Giant], it's not making it evident to IT people. Microsoft is doing a disservice to us."

Hershey Entertainment Resorts no longer uses Giant, and instead is using a network-centric approach to combating spyware, that has reduced the time staff spends putting out spyware fires from close to 40 hours a week to a negligible amount of time.

Many other companies, meanwhile, have opted to let their antivirus vendors extend their reach and provide spyware protection. Centralized management capabilities are the differentiator in most of those cases as companies are reluctant to allow users to periodically scan their systems and would rather scan and push regular updates from a console.

"The Microsoft beta is good, I'm really happy with what the scanning capabilities," said Patrick Zagdanski, an IT manager at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "But there's no central management tool, and that doesn't do me any good with six different campuses I have to manage."

Microsoft says it's committed to releasing its antispyware offering free, a move that would endanger the current glut of vendors enjoying heady times in the market. The consensus is that Microsoft's spyware entry could change that market much in the same way Internet Explorer's inclusion in Windows changed the browser market and ended Netscape's dominance.

Vista, the next version of Windows, has hooks in it that would support antispyware, said Jonathan Hassell, author of Hardening Windows. But Vista with antispyware may not be available until January 2007, and in the Longhorn server until the third quarter of '07.

"If you're researching a product, I recommend going ahead with it. Even if [antispyware] is included in Vista, it brings no central management," Hassell said. "You're seeing into the mist at this point."

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