Report: Microsoft preps beta of free antivirus app

'Morro' coming soon, replaces OneCare, which dies June 30

Microsoft Corp. is preparing to launch a public beta of Morro, the free antimalware it announced last November, according to a report by the Reuters news service.

Morro will use the same scanning engine as Windows Live OneCare, Microsoft's first consumer-grade antivirus package, and the software that the free software replaces. OneCare is to get the boot June 30, when Microsoft stops selling the program.

According to a Microsoft spokesman who spoke with Reuters, Morro is being tested internally at the company, and will be posted as a public beta "soon." The spokesman didn't offer the news service any further details about a timetable.

The company was not immediately available today to confirm the Reuters story, but it has e-mailed technology reporters offering more information in a briefing with executives if they agree to abide by a nondisclosure agreement.

Others, however, seemed to confirm that Morro was close at hand. Prominent Windows blogger Paul Thurrott noted the Reuters story, but begged off providing details.

"This puts me in an awkward spot. I can't really discuss this too much further at the moment, but since Reuters dropped the ball ..." he said. Thurrott also hinted that the news of Morro's imminent beta had leaked prematurely. "Let's just say it wasn't supposed to be today," he added.

Microsoft has been mum about Morro since November 2008, when it announced that it was dumping OneCare and would instead give away streamlined software that would sniff out PC viruses, worms, Trojans, rootkits and spyware.

At the time, Amy Barzdukas, a senior director of product management at Microsoft, only promised that Morro would launch sometime in the second half of this year. She also denied claims by security software rivals that Microsoft had thrown in the towel on OneCare because the software had flopped.

Microsoft's other consumer security software, the antispyware Windows Defender program, is bundled with Vista, will be included with Windows 7 and is a free download for Windows XP users.

Last year, John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Inc., questioned whether users would step up to Microsoft's Morro even if it was free. "Consumers are hesitant to pay for a Microsoft security product that will remove problems in other Microsoft products," he said. "Think of it this way. What if you smelled a rotten egg odor in your water and the water company said, 'Sure, we can remove that, but it will cost you $50.' Would you buy it?"

Not surprisingly, competitors have dismissed Morro's threat to their business and downplayed its ability to attract users. "We like our chances," said Todd Gebhart, vice president in charge of McAfee's consumer line, last year.

"Consumers have already rejected OneCare," added Rowan Trollope, senior vice president of consumer software at Symantec. "Making that same substandard security technology free won't change that equation."

OneCare isn't the only Microsoft program to get the ax at the end of the month. Yesterday, the company confirmed that it would also ditch Microsoft Money, its 18-year-old personal finance program, on June 30.

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