Antivirus subscription prices climb

Troublesome Trojan horses, virulent worms, nasty viruses--sometimes it may seem like the Internet exists just to let the bad guys attack your PC.

If you're on the ball, you already have a subscription to protective antivirus software that you renew annually. Now some of the leading makers of this type of software want you to upgrade--and not just to the latest version. They're eager to nudge users over to full Internet security suites that add antispam, firewall, and intrusion-detection components to basic antivirus features.

How are they making these suites more attractive? In some cases, they're doing that by making the subscription prices on older, stand-alone products more unattractive.

Should you be persuaded?

Money Matters

Symantec recently increased renewal prices for subscriptions to its Norton AntiVirus and Norton System Works software to US$20. That US$5--or 33 percent--increase follows similar increases in previous years.

But even as it raises these prices, Symantec is keeping the subscription renewal price on its Norton Internet Security suite flat at US$30, just US$10 more than the renewal fee for the stand-alone antivirus product. (Norton Internet Security retails for around US$70, compared to around US$50 for Norton AntiVirus.)

The subscription fee pays for updated software and antivirus definitions to protect against new threats, including adware, spyware, and keystroke logging programs, says Laura Garcia-Manrique, director of Symantec's consumer group.

"We recognize that while (Norton) Antivirus is a significant package, it doesn't provide enough protection. We wanted to provide an attractive price differential with Norton Internet Security and encourage customers to move up," Garcia-Manrique says.

McAfee also has increased subscription renewal prices for off-the-shelf versions of its VirusScan product. Subscription renewal prices have climbed steadily in recent years, from US$5 in 2000 to US$20 today, according to Bill Kerrigan, senior vice president of McAfee's consumer division.

Increased Threats

Symantec and McAfee officials say the fee increases are the result of an increasingly dangerous computing environment that demands solutions for threats such as spam, Trojan horses, and spyware.

"In the last year, we had Blaster, Welchia, and Sobig--three huge worms in eight days. Our infrastructure has to handle over three million hits an hour, and 1.1 million (antivirus signature) updates in one hour alone. Subscription renewals help us make the incremental investments necessary to handle those demands," Garcia-Manrique says.

But upgrading to a full security suite may not be the best course for consumers, either financially or from a security standpoint. While it is important for most users to have a firewall and spam protection, PC World's testing has found that security suites often offer inferior protection to that provided by a set of stand-alone products.

And many PC users appear to be living with the subscription price hikes: McAfee's Kerrigan says renewal rates for VirusScan subscriptions are more than 80 percent. But at least some users are choosing to upgrade--whether to the latest versions of a stand-alone package or to the suite.

Feeling the Pressure?

Industry experts say that factors other than new Internet threats may be behind the price hikes, including anticipated competition in the antivirus market from software giant Microsoft, which has recently beefed up its Windows firewall and has made no secret of its intentions to enter the antivirus software market.

"Microsoft is going to play a huge factor," says Brian Burke, a research manager with IDC.

Fred Hoch, vice president of software programs at the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade association for the software industry, says that the entry of Microsoft and smaller competitors into the antivirus and desktop security software market could drive down prices in the future.

"It's going to be a competitive market for some time, and prices could come down," he says.

At McAfee, the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2, which included more security features, and competition from companies such as Computer Associates International Inc. and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. contributed to a decision to keep prices for many of its products flat in 2005, Kerrigan says.

Name Brands

Smaller competitors of the big-two antivirus companies, and even some industry experts, say that consumers are already paying a hefty premium for brand-name recognition.

Annie Chen, product marketing manager for consumer products at security software vendor Trend Micro, says her company has added many of the same features to its PC-cillin Internet Security product suite that Symantec and McAfee added to their product suites in recent years, including antispam capabilities and Web pop-up blocking. But the company hasn't increased the US$50 price of its product suite or the US$25 annual subscription cost in three years.

Customers may be willing to sacrifice brand recognition if cheaper options are available. But, the message for PC users is to shop around--and not let software vendors pressure them into getting a suite.

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Paul Roberts

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