Microsoft AntiSpyware: Separated at Birth

Is Microsoft's AntiSpyware beta program enough to protect your company's PCs against the intrusion of threatening malware?
You probably know that a program called Microsoft AntiSpyware is currently being given away by the Redmond company in a public beta program.

What you may not know is that the program started out being co-developed by another software company — which happens to own the rights to Microsoft's spyware database for the better part of the next three years.

That's an interesting tale, and the telling of it may give your company a look into the future of all such software.

Good Fences Make Good Developers

Stu Sjouwerman is the founder and COO of Sunbelt Software, the maker of IHateSpam, Directory Inspector, and many other programs for PCs. Sunbelt is also the publisher of CounterSpy, an anti-adware program based on much of the same code as Microsoft AntiSpyware. Here's how Sjouwerman explains it:

Co-Development. As the threat of adware and spyware grew in 2003 and 2004, Sunbelt and a then-little-known firm called Giant Software Company agreed to co-develop a program to detect and remove the intrusive visitors. That program became Giant AntiSpyware and Sunbelt CounterSpy.

Building The Network. Both companies also created a way for users of their two programs to submit suspected adware and spyware to be added to the database of programs that should be caught. Giant called its database SpyNet, while Sunbelt called its parallel offering ThreatNet.

Contract Renegotiation. Giant asked in 2004 to change the agreement between the two companies, Sjouwerman asserts. "We smelled a rat, but we agreed to change the contract," he says. After the change, each company completely owned its own version of the software.

Database-Driven. Microsoft later announced, on Dec. 16, 2004, that it had acquired Giant and would begin a beta of a new product, Microsoft AntiSpyware, based on the old code. The contract between Sunbelt and Giant, however, still required that the database of spyware reported to Giant's SpyNet (which is now part of Microsoft's effort) will be shared with Sunbelt for three years.

Anti-adware tools are becoming as widely demanded as antivirus utilities, because of the virulence of some of the latest strain of PC malware. Access to new instances of such exploits that are reported to SpyNet can give Sunbelt a marked advantage in keeping its product current, Sjouwerman implies.

A Delicate Relationship

Amid some confusion in the immediate aftermath of the acquisition, Microsoft and Sunbelt both confirmed that their contracts allowed the two products to be owned and developed separately, and that Sunbelt was in fact entitled to a regular exchange of information from the Redmond company.

"Because of a legal agreement between Sunbelt Software Distribution and Giant that preceded the Microsoft acquisition, Microsoft will provide spyware signature updates to Sunbelt through July 2007," Microsoft said in a statement posted on its Web site. Oddly, this statement got little attention from the press, and only one Web page on the entire Internet ever linked to it, according to a Google search (not counting the page that now bears this column, of course).

Sjouwerman says Microsoft is living up to its end of the bargain. "Microsoft is providing us with updates about twice a week," he claims. In addition to ThreatNet user reports that total "hundreds a day," Sjouwerman says, "we think we're going to have a database that's going to be very hard to beat."

The Future Of Anti-Adware And AntiSpyware

The acquisition of Giant and its AntiSpyware program casts a long shadow over the marketplace for PC security software. Will Microsoft become a major player or even wipe out the market for antivirus and other kinds of PC protection products?

Microsoft is known to be developing its own antivirus product, which is code-named "Atlanta" (after the home town of one of the product's developers). Whether or not the antivirus capabilities will be combined with Microsoft's new AntiSpyware product — and whether the Redmond company will charge for the suite or give it away free — are the subject of heated speculation.

The antivirus and antispyware development lines are being bundled together into a project code-named "A1," according to a r eport by Mary Jo Foley, editor of, an independent site. It's likely to be sold on a subscription basis, she says, after the AntiSpyware beta ends in July.

Asked about this speculation, a Microsoft spokesman said via e-mail, "We are not prepared to announce our final pricing or packaging decision at this time. ... We will be announcing our plans closer to the final release of the technology."

Regarding whether antivirus and anti-adware features will be combined into a single product, the spokesman said, "We do not plan to introduce anti-virus capabilities into this particular solution, however, we have publicly announced that we will eventually be offering customers an anti-virus solution on a for-fee basis."

"I think Symantec and McAfee will be somewhat nervous," Sunbelt's Sjouwerman notes with barely restrained glee.


Is Microsoft's AntiSpyware beta program enough to protect your company's PCs against the intrusion of threatening malware?

One strike against it is that it's a consumer solution, intended for use on a single PC at a time. Sunbelt's CounterSpy, in contrast, has a single-use client version available for $19.95 but also offers an enterprise version sporting centralized management. CounterSpy Enterprise starts at $255 for 10 PCs. Other software developers have their own centrally managed products or soon will.

Whichever product you choose, don't delay in installing it. Malware is big business. Spyware silently installs itself to your PCs via an enormous variety of free downloads available on the Internet. These downloads pass right through your firewall. All it takes is for one of your authorized users to request a file or simply visit a Web site that exploits a little-known security hole. Today's music-sharing download may be sharing a lot more than the latest tunes.

For more information, see Microsoft's antispyware page and Sunbelt's security tools page.

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