What Price Security?

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005; 10:36 AM

It's time to give Microsoft credit for doing the right thing, and I am not talking about the Xbox 360.

I'll devote a few lines to the new game box/savior of the world, but first let's examine Windows OneCare, the automated repair service that will make computer security a reality for the average PC owner. It contains tools to fight spyware and viruses, a firewall to block sketchy data (incoming and outgoing) and patches security holes. Microsoft is testing the product among its employees now and expects to conduct a public test later this year.

The company deserves praise for "un-befuddling" computer users who ignore what they don't understand, but the strategy contains two flaws: It costs extra and is incompatible with competing products.

A Microsoft official quoted in the New York Times said OneCare is computer security for the "Jiffy Lube customer." I couldn't put it better myself.

But even though computer security is like driving a car, the analogy breaks down (ha ha) when it comes to money. Most people feel that if they shell out thousands of dollars to buy a computer, the accompanying software and a steady Internet connection, the companies that make all the complicated technology work ought to take care of security on their end. That is also true. In an age of phishing, spyware, hackers, denial-of-service attacks and all manner of other digital troubles, Internet security is a requirement.

What Microsoft should do is make the service automatic -- and free -- and allow techies and other people who feel they know enough about security to handle it themselves to opt out of receiving it. To be fair, we don't know how much OneCare will cost, but even if it's only an extra $5 or $10 each month, you can double your money by betting $10 that the cost will result in fewer takers. Cost-conscious customers see maintaining a computer and Internet connection as a steady flow of outbound nickels and dimes, and no amount of front-page news stories about hackers and identity theft will persuade all of them to pay yet more money for something that the head office should provide from the get-go.

As for compatibility, OneCare will turn Microsoft from a customer of the anti-virus industry into a competitor. This isn't a business column, but it's worth noting that this culminates several years of speculation that the software firm would make just such a move. As for the computer user, this carries important implications.

Here's a note from the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Hamlin said OneCare won't work with competing security programs from the likes of Symantec and McAfee Inc., because Microsoft wants to be able to provide comprehensive support services. He stressed that Microsoft is aiming at users who don't now use security software and may not know they need it."

This could prove to be a mistake. Plenty of news sources wrote that as many as 75 percent of computer users don't have updated protection for their computers, but in reality, those people probably don't have a clue what they have -- or don't have. When I use my mother's computer and update the security settings, I don't bother to tell her because she doesn't speak the language. "As long as it works," she would say. Hopefully the testing phase for OneCare will convince Microsoft to let the product play nice with competitors' programs. Competition, even on its own operating system, is something that Microsoft already knows can lead to unpleasant outcomes.

Xbox: It Blends In With the Furniture

Judging by some of the coverage this morning, the 360 will let you play games, surf the Internet, learn how to make soufflés, cancel Third-World debt and teach your dog to talk. (See this story out of South Korea if you don't believe me.) Come to think of it, the Xbox 360 might be that mysterious product that Tom Waits  hawked on " Small Change."

The device, unveiled on Thursday, will go head to head with offerings from Sony and Nintendo, which expect to announce their new consoles next week at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. That's the annual video-game industry gathering, usually held in Los Angeles, where gamers, executives and all manner of bikini-clad booth babes carouse, negotiate and play first-person shooters in a scene that Fellini in his most feverish excesses could never have imagined.

The San Jose Mercury news ran two stories on the Xbox, one of which yielded up this plum excerpt: "The Xbox 360 will be more powerful than any personal computer currently on the market. And at least until Sony launches the PlayStation 3 next year, it will be the most powerful box in the living room. The Xbox is powered by an ATI graphics chip and three IBM PowerPC microprocessors running at 3.2 gigahertz, each capable of running two programs at the same time. The Xbox 360 will be able to display its images in high-definition formats for digital TV sets, which the company is betting will be adopted en masse by technology fans such as gamers. It also will play on existing analog TV sets."

In the other story, the Merc referred to the Xbox 360 as its Trojan horse. The thrust of this idea is that the company penetrates the living room, not just the computer room, and pumps all sorts of other digital entertainment into our lives: "Beyond expanding the reach of video games -- now found in about 45 percent of U.S. homes -- Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates wants Microsoft technology to be a gateway to all sorts of paid entertainment. At stake are billions of dollars as consumers begin to use such devices for getting everything from Internet TV to downloads of new video game levels. Microsoft has been willing to tolerate big losses in pursuit of this strategy. The group that includes the Xbox has lost $1.4 billion in the past seven quarters."

God, Sex and Podcasting

My friend John drops me a line every time I write about podcasting. The crux of most of his commentary is: "You're writing about iPods again? Why?" I tried to avoid iPods for a few editions, but the pressure is extreme and resistance is useless. Here are some new developments:

  • Condom maker Durex bought ad space on the Dawn and Drew Show, a popular program with people who tune in to PodcastAlley.com, Ad Age reported: Podcasting gives Durex "a way to demonstrate the brand in a way that's very, very relevant," according to Liz Daney, senior vice president at Fitzgerald & Co., the unit of ad firm Omnicom that arranged the buy. "We could have the product actively being used. We're showing it exactly as we want to position the brand, as fun, as playful and sensual," she told Ad Age. The story goes on: "On the first podcast originally uploaded last month, Dawn and Drew and their dog, Hercules , put various samples from a Durex variety pack to the taste test. In a subsequent show, they tried a new line of tingling lubricants." Thrill-a-minute.
  • On the other end of the pod, Frank Barnako at CBSMarketWatch.com reported that more people take in weekly church sermons through their iPods. Barnako calls it "Godcasting."
  • Free wisdom from Australia's The Age: iPods aren't wash-and-wear. A Melbourne teenager burned a hole in his bed and inhaled noxious fumes after he tried to perform "emergency surgery on his ailing MP3 player" that his mother accidentally put through the wash. "Country Fire Authority spokesman Peter Philp said the leaky iPod had been taken away for testing by CFA investigators. ... 'It wasn't working, the young fella tried to undo it or fix it with a screwdriver and at that stage there was an explosion, or more of a pop.'"
  • Realtors See Reality

    Earlier this week I told you about the Justice Department's plan to sue the National Association of Realtors for adopting a bylaw that would let the group's members withhold information from discount online property brokers. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, now reports that the group is stepping off that plan. "A retreat by the Realtors on this rule may embolden discounters to step up efforts to expand their small share of the market. Already, consumers are bargaining harder with real-estate agents over commissions, which have become much more lucrative for agents as home prices have soared. The average national commission has fallen to about 5.1% from 6% in the early 1990s, industry publication Real Trends estimated last year," the Journal reported.

    © 2005 The Washington Post Company