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Windows 8 'doesn't move the needle' on security, says Symantec

Gregg Keizer | Sept. 7, 2012
Symantec said Windows 8 "doesn't move the needle much" on security as it rolled out new versions of its antivirus software and promised to provide users with several so-called "Modern" apps for the new operating system.

Not surprisingly, Egan didn't think much of Microsoft's security moves in Windows 8 as he set up several "myths" about the new OS only to then knock each down.

"We're just not seeing any significant improvements in Windows 8 security ... it doesn't move the needle much," Egan said, ticking off everything from the new Secure Boot feature to a beefed-up Smart Screen anti-malware filter.

"It's partially true that Windows 8 is more secure," said Egan, pointing to the concept of the Windows Store and its approved apps. "But underneath is a traditional Windows-Intel desktop, which is backward compatible with both the good code and the bad."

Much of Egan's disparagement of Windows 8's security can be traced to Windows 8's bundling of Windows Defender, an old name for a heavily reworked product.

In Windows 8, Windows Defender combines characteristics of both the earlier anti-spyware program of the same name, and the free Security Essentials, the antivirus program that previously was offered as a separate download.

Windows Defender serves as the operating system's default protection against malware, and will switch itself off only if it detects an active third-party antivirus program that's receiving signature updates.

Although Security Essentials has stirred third-party antivirus vendors in the past to complain that Microsoft wasn't playing fair, the move to bundle Defender with Windows 8 hasn't prodded them to go public with similar beefs.

Egan argued that Symantec's software does a better job of protecting users than Windows Defender. "We believe we add so much more value over and above [Defender]," he said.

But John Pescatore, a Gartner analyst, said Symantec has bigger problems than Windows Defender.

"They're all going after a shrinking pool of machines," said Pescatore of stalled PC sales as smartphones and tablets consume discretionary dollars. "The percentage of devices running Windows is dropping. And there are more players going after that shrinking pool."

Symantec may play up the Windows 8 angle for its new titles, but the truth, said Pescatore, is that Microsoft's decision to mimic Apple and Google by offering an app store means traditional antivirus vendors have an unclear future.

"There's never been a market for security software on iOS," Pescatore observed. "So if Microsoft pushes the whitelist idea of an app store, there's less and less need for the [antivirus] commodity."

Egan's complaint that the hooks into the boot process -- dubbed "Early Load Anti-malware Driver," or ELAM -- doesn't allow software makers to deploy their full set of weapons is actually a good thing, Pescatore argued.

"It's better that the [Windows 8] platform doesn't let security software's root kits work, because that means it also cripples the bad guys' root kits," Pescatore said.


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