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Wednesday, February 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft to fend off PC viruses for $49.95

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft executives often say their products are easy enough for their mothers to use, but in reality their moms still call a lot, asking for help fixing their computers.

Thinking of mom — and all the other people who lean on techie friends for advice — Microsoft is starting a new PC maintenance service for consumers and small businesses.

For $49.95 a year, Windows OneCare Live will keep subscribers' PCs updated, maintained and patched with the latest security software. It will also make backup copies of important files and include phone and online support.

It goes on sale in June, but a free test version is available at www.windowsonecare.com.

Advanced users routinely perform the same tasks themselves for little or no cost. But Microsoft is targeting the millions of PC users whose machines are unprotected and poorly maintained because it's too complicated or time-consuming to keep them updated.

"We're offering a premium level of service that's similar to if you were to take your Lexus into a dealership and get a level of service vs. 'Hey, I've got a buddy who can fix my car for me in his home garage,' " said Dennis Bonsall, director of Windows OneCare Live.

But OneCare is far more than a helping hand for novice or non-techie computer users. It's also an aggressive move to capture a bigger share of the consumer security-software market, which has thrived largely because of vulnerabilities in Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system.

Security sells


Microsoft and Symantec have new services to help consumers keep their PCs maintained and updated with the latest security software. Here's a comparison of the products:

Microsoft Windows OneCare Live

What it does: PC maintenance and security service. Automatically installs system updates and security patches. Includes anti-spyware and anti-virus protection. Performs routine maintenance and system "tuneups" such as disk cleanup and defragmentation. Automatically backs up files to an external hard drive or prompts users to back up files to CD or DVD disks. Online backup storage may be offered in the future at additional cost.

Timing: On sale in June; free test version available now.

Details: Includes phone and online support. Service covers up to three PCs; aimed at consumer and small businesses. Requires Windows XP with service pack 2.

Price: $49.95 a year.

Symantec Genesis

What it does: PC maintenance and security service. Automatically installs system updates and security patches, Includes anti-spyware and anti-virus protection. Performs routine maintenance and system tuneups. Automatically backs up files to external hard drives, disks. Includes 1 gigabyte of online backup space.

Timing: To be released in fall.

Details: Includes phone and online support. Requires Windows XP or Vista.

Price: To be announced; some analysts expect it to cost $79.99 a year.

Brier Dudley

OneCare may also be a preview of Microsoft's future. The company has long tried to shift customers toward services that carry annual charges, weaning them from packaged software products that are sold once and last indefinitely.

That effort is accelerating under a new services strategy Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie announced in November. It's also gaining new urgency with Google and Yahoo! rapidly delivering services that chip away at Microsoft's share of consumer's computing experience.

Microsoft may deliver Windows entirely by subscription within 15 years, said Rob Enderle, a technology consultant and analyst in Santa Clara, Calif. In the meantime, it is likely to start gradually lowering the upfront cost of its products as it collects more revenue through subscriptions, he said.

"I would argue this is the first major step towards a subscription operating system," Enderle said of OneCare.

Microsoft's announcement Tuesday also appears to be an effort to get ahead of Symantec, a Cupertino, Calif., company that produces Norton-brand security software.

Symantec is to brief investors Thursday on its new consumer strategy, the highlight of which is Genesis, a new subscription service announced Tuesday that is similar to OneCare.

Symantec is also negotiating with PC makers to have Genesis bundled with PCs expected to go on sale in late 2006 with Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system.

Microsoft's Bonsall said OneCare won't be bundled with Vista; it will be sold online and through retailers.

Both companies believe there's a huge opportunity for such services.

Symantec estimates 30 to 40 percent of PC users don't have current security software, while Microsoft thinks the range is 60 to 70 percent. Both say consumers are looking for a single product that handles all the security and maintenance tasks PCs require.

"The majority of consumers out there actually prefer all-in-one solutions; they want to get one service," said Tom Powledge, Symantec director of product management.

Powledge said Genesis will compete well against OneCare because it has more comprehensive features, including some aimed specifically at preventing online criminals from stealing personal information. He said Genesis pricing will be announced later in the year.

Goldman Sachs analysts said Symantec and McAfee, another large security-software vendor, will fare well because Microsoft priced OneCare higher than expected. In a note to investors Tuesday, they said OneCare was expected to cost around $20 a year or less.

They also predicted that Genesis — which will include 1 gigabyte of online backup capacity — will cost at least $79.99 a year.

They suggested that more details about both products could be presented next week at the RSA Conference, a major computer-security event where both Gates and Symantec Chief Executive John Thompson are giving keynote speeches.

Microsoft is offering a lower introductory price to consumers who participate in OneCare's "beta" testing process. Consumers who sign up in April will pay $19.95 for their first year of service. The service covers up to three PCs.

Bonsall said he's already signed his mother up as a beta tester and he expects she'll become a subscriber.

"I'm pretty sure I can convince her to go for $19.95."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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