Microsoft, the "third world" and anti-virus

For the past year or so, I've repeatedly been trying to bring up what I see as a huge, gaping hole in any project which uses Microsoft products for an ICT4Development rollout - computer viruses. Windows XP, when connected to the Internet sans protection, lasts as few as four minutes before becoming infected, and rarely more than a day. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of OLPC XOs running Windows (with no mention of anti-virus software to date), and you have a nightmare scenario pretty rapidly.

The much-debated VitalWave TCO paper we discussed at the World Bank, which argued that the higher cost of Linux administrators balanced out licensing costs for discounted Microsoft and anti-virus software, even admitted the significant costs of purchasing and maintaining a subscription to anti-virus tools

If Microsoft wants to continue to capture the developing world market, this is going to be a barrier. They can drop their own licensing costs for the XP Starter Edition (which at this point is zero cost to them) down, and hand out older Office software; but the initial and subscription costs for anti-virus software are not (directly) under MS's control. Regardless, having anti-virus protection directly impacts the functionality of the device - if installed, A-V can slow a less powerful computer down to a crawl during a scan and at startup, but the consequences of not having it can render the system absolutely useless.

So it comes as little surprise that Microsoft has announced a free anti-virus software for XP and Vista that targets lower-powered systems (cough, like the OLPC?) to address both these problems and lower the cost barrier for adopting MS:

Code-named “Morro,” this streamlined solution will be available in the second half of 2009 and will provide comprehensive protection from malware including viruses, spyware, rootkits and trojans. This new solution, to be offered at no charge to consumers, will be architected for a smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources, making it ideal for low-bandwidth scenarios or less powerful PCs. As part of Microsoft’s move to focus on this simplified offering, the company also announced today that it will discontinue retail sales of its Windows Live OneCare subscription service effective June 30, 2009.

“Customers around the world have told us that they need comprehensive, ongoing protection from new and existing threats, and we take that concern seriously,” said Amy Barzdukas, senior director of product management for the Online Services and Windows Division at Microsoft. “This new, no-cost offering will give us the ability to protect an even greater number of consumers, especially in markets where the growth of new PC purchases is outpaced only by the growth of malware.”

This is something they simply had to do or risk losing emerging markets to Linux-based systems. It will be interesting to see how this affects the anti-virus market in general, and the big (and expensive) players specifically -- will they come out with low-cost or "free" versions, work on a developing-world-only edition? Work closer with OEMs and institutions to buy large license blocks (i.e. work with Ministries of education to supply a blanket license to all their systems)?

As an advocate of open source for development, it saddens me that this barrier has been removed (technically, will be - it could be vaporware still) -- but having seen the disastrous landscape of unprotected systems in the developing world, I am hopeful that this will reduce the impact that malware has on existing Windows systems.