An inherent conflict of interest

Microsoft is getting into the "anti" business. That is, the anti-spyware, anti-virus and, in general, anti-bad stuff business. The anti business is a pretty good one -- to the tune of billions of dollars per year. The fact that almost all of the value of the business stems from the fact that Microsoft has not been able to get security right the first time makes Microsoft's entry into the business more than a bit conflicted.

According to published reports, Microsoft's OneCare will be more than just an anti-spyware and anti-virus packag;, it will be a subscription service targeted at home rather than enterprise users and will provide an auto-update function, as well as protect against viruses and spyware. Microsoft plans to try it out on its employees in the near future but has not announced when the service will be generally available. Nor has the company said how much it will cost.

My reaction when I first heard about the service was: "Hey, wait a minute. Microsoft caused this problem, so why should its customers have to pay extra to fix it?' But on second thought, because it might actually be technically or practically impossible to fix the problem at its source by not having so many bugs, charging to fix it might be the right thing from a number of points of view:

-- From Microsoft's point of view, it would be out of character to leave so much money on the table.

-- From the point of view of the current players in the anti-virus and anti-spyware game, having Microsoft as a competitor is far better than Microsoft deciding to bundle the software into the base operating system like it has so many times before with other applications.

-- From an antitrust point of view, it is not clear that Microsoft had much choice than to charge a reasonable amount if it wanted to play in this field. The company has been put on notice in a number of legal jurisdictions to stop bundling new functions into Windows that others already are selling.

But Microsoft does have some significant advantages, even if it is ostensibly just another competitor. The company will get very early word of any new exploits, likely before any of its competitors except in the case where a competitor discovers the vulnerability. Microsoft can add one of its nagging pop-up balloons reminding users that they should subscribe to OneCare (again and again and again. . .). The company does not have to do more than appear to break even on OneCare to have a creditable antitrust defense story, and thus might be able to undercut competitors that actually have to try to make a profit. It's easier for Microsoft to figure out how to integrate into Windows and, in particular, future versions of Windows.

Then there is the advantage of being able to delay fixing underlying bugs to encourage sales of OneCare -- but Microsoft would never do that.

Disclaimer: Delaying graduations would not be all that good a sales tool for Harvard anyway, as far as I know. The university has not expressed an opinion on this topic, thus the above opinion must be mine.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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