In big business, stealing customers for an incremental increase in market share against competitors happens all the time; after all, when there aren't new customers to be had, you can only attract existing ones. Times are rough for some antispyware vendors now that the market includes big-name vendors CA, McAfee, Microsoft, Symantec, Trend Micro, and ZoneAlarm--all of them providing antispyware solutions within their antivirus products or Internet security suites. And with Microsoft bundling its Windows Defender product free within Windows Vista and Windows XP SP2, pure-play antispyware vendors such as PCTools, Sunbelt, and Webroot are all scrambling for a bigger piece of the pie, and some of that scrambling has turned downright nasty.
Them's fightin' words, part 1
In a blog last week, Sunbelt alleged that Webroot sales reps have been scraping the Sunbelt Web site, collecting the names of Sunbelt customers, then calling those customers with the intent of getting them to switch. PCTools, on the other hand, reports that competitors have been posting negative comments about their products on their community forum site.
The energy with which these vendors are spying on each other suggests that the antispyware spyware market has not only matured, but narrowed, especially in the enterprise space. At least one of the vendors, SunBelt vigorously disagrees, yet Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software admits there isn't quantifiable data to support either side. "It's certainly gotten more competitive," he agreed.
Antispyware products, a brief history
A few years ago, spyware and adware was all the rage--it was everywhere, and antivirus protection alone wasn't good enough: spyware evolved too quickly for signature-based antivirus engines. Today, some of the worst offenders in the adware/spyware arena have stopped or greatly cleaned up their acts--in part because of federal intervention and because legit business practices tend to reap more profits (in the long term) than illegitimate practices. The few pure-spyware vendors that do remain are, however, creating malware that's much more vile and nasty. Which means traditional antispyware protection no longer works.
At one time, a company need only specialize in registry cleaning in order to hang out a shingle and call itself an antispyware vendor.
At one time, a company need only specialize in registry cleaning in order to hang out a shingle and call itself an antispyware vendor. Indeed, Boulder, Colorado-based Webroot took its early success with Window Washer and parlayed that into a line of Spy Sweeper products. PCTools, from Sydney, Australia, gained notoriety for its Registry Mechanic product. And Tampa, Florida's Sunbelt Software was known for its early antispam product. Now these basic, registry-based cleaning methods alone are no longer effective against today's spyware threats. In CNET's latest roundup and testing of antispyware apps, we found those that combine antispyware with antivirus or firewall protection performed better overall.
To cope with the changing spyware/adware/malware landscape, Webroot partnered with the award-winning U.K. antivirus vendor Sophos. The partnership makes sense: Sophos does not make a standalone desktop application and does not have an antispyware solution on the market. However, early releases of SpySweeper 5 with Antivirus lack some of the Sophos antivirus technology because of incompatibilites between the real-time antivirus and antispyware engines.
Amused or not, harsh words back and forth between vendors only confuse the consumer.
Realizing this might be the case, Sunbelt created a better antivirus solution. It recruited veteran antivirus researcher Joe Wells to head up the integration of a new antivirus product into its existing antispyware technology. The problem is that starting a new antivirus company from scratch means the product will be using untested technology. PCTools also decided to create its own antivirus solution to work alongside its antispyware protection, but the early releases of Spyware Doctor 5 with Antivirus has been fraught with glitches. I've seen no independent antivirus testing of either CounterSpy or Spyware Doctor.
Them's fightin' words, part 2
In a voice mail provided to CNET, a Webroot salesperson is heard to say that he got the customer's name from the Sunbelt Web site and wanted a chance to explain why Webroot was better. In response to this and other such solicitations in the last few weeks, Sunbelt's lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter (PDF) to Webroot.
In a statement provided to CNET, Webroot said "There is a long tradition of small, pushy tech companies picking fights in the press with industry leaders to generate attention. While we welcome healthy competition and debate, acknowledging thinly veiled publicity stunts is counterproductive to our business."
Can't we all just get along?
PCTools has taken a different approach. Michael Greene, VP of Marketing strategy, told me that his company has seen U.S. and U.K. competitors take pot shots at PCTools in their community forums. In response, PCTools issued a statement politely asking the competitors to leave. "We had considered bringing in the lawyers," Greene said, "but in the end decided not to go the legal route, as we had no time for petty squabbling." Greene said PCTools is amused that any competitor would go through that kind of effort to assail its products.
Amused or not, harsh words back and forth between vendors only confuse the consumer. At the end of the day, performance and value are what counts, yet even now, the antispyware community still lacks a reputable, independent research body to test a large number of products against all known spyware in the wild. Until that happens, we should get used to the nastiness. Do you currently use a standalone antispyware app? Would you consider switching? TalkBack to me.