Recently statements were made by a Microsoft spokesperson that some interpreted as implying that Microsoft was giving up on Microsoft Security Essentials. I went to the source and asked for clarification.
No you don’t. If you’ve been happy with it, you’re perfectly welcome to keep on using it as you have in the past.
To put it a different way, I’m not changing my recommendation. Microsoft Security Essentials remains my recommendation for most people. I’m also not changing what I use myself, which is MSE.
As it turns out, the majority of the “journalism” on the topic over the past couple of weeks has simply been repeating a single source of information. Worse, the repetition included not only a couple of quotes without full context from a Microsoft spokesperson and also additional speculation by the author of that original piece. As the story was repeated, even more speculation was added and assumptions were made.
The result was quite the kerfuffle.
Now, I don’t call myself a “journalist” – I’m just a geek with a voice on the web trying to help people use their computers. But even I know that just repeating and embellishing what others are saying about what others are saying isn’t the right way to approach something like this.
So I took a different approach. I went to the source and contacted Microsoft directly for clarification.
Should people using MSE today be concerned?
I managed to contact Holly Stewart, the person quoted in the original article, who pointed me at some recently posted official clarification. She also directed me to others who were able to confirm my understanding of the entire situation.
At the top of my list of concerns was simply whether people currently using MSE (Microsoft Security Essentials / Windows Defender1) should be concerned - is Microsoft committed to making sure that consumers who choose to use MSE are safe and will remain so in the future?
The answer is clear: there’s no need for concern, MSE remains a fundamentally safe choice.
In a subsequent blog post on the Microsoft Malware Protection Center blog, Our commitment to Microsoft antimalware, Dennis Batchelder, Partner Group Program Manager of the center concludes a general discussion about Microsoft’s commitment to the technology with this statement:
We believe in Microsoft antimalware products and strongly recommend them to our customers, to our friends, and to our families.
Recommending the technologies to your friends and families – especially when it’s the technology you’re responsible for – doesn’t sound like giving up to me. That’s a statement of belief in the product.
It’s one thing when I recommend a product to my friends and family – if it breaks I can blame the manufacturer. When you’re a Microsoft person working in the Malware Protection Center, making that recommendation implies that when something goes wrong you’re the manufacturer, and you’ll have to answer grandma as to why your product didn’t protect her computer. That takes commitment. (I know, I’ve lived this with other products. )
A test is not the real world
One of the most unfortunate interpretations the original article deals with Microsoft seemingly “giving up” by saying that they were shifting focus away from “predicting test results”. Specifically:
“We used to have part of our team directed towards predicting test results and figuring out what might be in someone’s test. There’s always a cost to that. If they are doing that work, they are not looking at those threats that are affecting our customers. We always felt that was wrong. There’s something not right about that – we’re not doing the best job for our customers.” – Holly Stewart, quoted in PCPro
What this says to me is that Microsoft has shifted resources away from trying to look good in random tests, and applied those resources to being good in the real world. It’s as if they had said “we’re walking away from the comparison testing game, because we believe our efforts are best spent elsewhere”.
That’s not giving up. You may disagree with the strategy, you may consider independent third party testing to be a valid and valuable approach for anti-malware tool comparison. However, simply choosing a different approach to making the product better is certainly not something you can interpret as “giving up”.
And those “efforts best spent elsewhere”? They benefit all the anti-malware vendors. Which is what makes this so complex.
The complex world of anti-malware tools and Microsoft’s role in it
Unfortunately Microsoft has a difficult time giving short, clear and definite answers in situations like this. While the published blog post Our commitment to Microsoft antimalware is strong on commitment to the process and technology, and to a certain degree a commitment to the specific products, it still reads as very … vague. Very “business like”. To me it doesn’t come out and nail the issue as clearly or as hard as I would like.
But I understand why it must be so.
In a word: partners.
When it comes to anti-malware tools, Microsoft actually needs to do two things:
- Produce an anti-malware tool (MSE)
- Help other companies – their partners – produce anti-malware tools
It’s not difficult at all to see that these two roles have the potential to come into conflict.
If Microsoft were to come out and say “Hell’s yeah, we’re making the best darned anti-malware tool on the planet! You don’t need those other guys!” those partners that Microsoft still needs to work with are not going to be particularly happy.
Heck, for all I know internally they are trying to create the best darned anti-malware tool2, but it’s not something they could ever say so strongly and so publicly.
Making MSE better makes everyone better
Microsoft’s ultimate commitment is to making Windows users safer and battling … the true enemy: malware writers.
What this also means is that outside vendors get to use what they figure out on their own, plus what Microsoft has learned and shared with them. Does this make other tools “better”? Possibly, depending how good they are in general, and on your definition of “better”. Does it make Microsoft’s tools any worse? Not at all. Does it imply that Microsoft has given up on their own tools? Absolutely not.
Microsoft’s ultimate commitment is to making Windows users safer and battling, as Mr. Batchelder put it, the true enemy: malware writers. They simply use a two pronged approach: making a good anti-malware product, and sharing data with other vendors so that they can do the same.
The net result is more choice for the user and a safer Windows experience for everyone.
As I mentioned at the start, my recommendation has not changed.
I continue to recommend MSE as a convenient, low-overhead, low impact anti-virus and anti-spyware tool. It’s easy, it’s reliable, and requires almost no effort to set up or monitor. As others often recommend, MalwareBytes is a fine companion utility to add an extra layer of security should you feel so inclined. (I run with only MSE, and pull out Malwarebytes only as needed, which is quite infrequent.)
There are other good solutions out there as well – in part due to Microsoft’s data sharing of information. If, for some reason, MSE doesn’t work for you or you remain uncomfortable for some reason, What Security Software do you recommend? lists a few alternatives.
It’s critical to realize that no anti-malware product will stop all malware. Your anti-malware tool, whatever you might choose, is simply an important part of a larger overall strategy that includes everything from keeping your system and all software up to date to your own behavior as you interact online and more. And of course backing up regularly.