OneCare and Morro: New Direction, or Fail?

Microsoft announced today that after June 30, 2009, Windows Live OneCare will be shut down, and that Microsoft is working on a new, free, small footprint anti-virus solution code-named “Morro”.  Ina Fried at CNET News and others have been playing this as somewhat of a bold move by Microsoft, to somehow disrupt the market held by Symantec and McAfee by offering a free AV solution.

I’m not so sure.  From here, this looks much more like spin on the failure of OneCare.  Regardless of what Morro becomes, and more about that in a bit,  OneCare hasn’t had the impact that Microsoft had hoped.  While Microsoft touts OneCare’s “award winning” status, it also garnered some embarrassing negative press, and certainly wasn’t or isn’t held in high regard as a leader in anti-virus software (or a leader in sales, for that matter).

Early on, OneCare succumbed to the kind of bloatware that had made other security suites almost unusable, bundling in printer sharing, online backup, tune-up automation, and other fluff that seemed designed as much to hide the core software’s shortcomings as to add value.  Indeed, today’s press release seems to try and distance itself from these “additional non-security features” as it sets up Morro to be something different:

By shifting to focus on the core anti-malware features that most consumers still don’t keep up to date, “Morro” will be able to provide the essential protections that consumers need without overusing system resources, and will help more consumers have better protection against online threats.

While Microsoft could have just kept on plugging away with OneCare, this was a product going decidedly in the wrong direction.  Windows Live OneCare painted itself into a corner in at least three areas:

  1. One of the biggest feature requests for Windows 7 and beyond is for quicker startup and shutdown times.  By loading OneCare up with “additional non-security features”, OneCare at least incrementally slowed the system down at startup and shutdown.  Rather than continue down a path of fighting against itself, Microsoft has chosen to change course.  With Morro, it is pursuing a solution that “will be architected for a smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources”.  And ensure, presumably, faster loading home PCs.
  2. Scale.  In order to effectively gather information about virus threats, the larger the install base the better.  A Morro solution, with a small footprint and a hopefully much larger install base, will be better able to collect information on, and then stop, more malware.  Microsoft is continuing to pursue for-profit solutions like Forefront, which will share the malware protection engine with Morro, remember.
  3. Online backup.  In a nutshell, OneCare online backup is at odds with SkyDrive, Live Sync (and the coming meshification of Windows Live), and Windows Live.  Continuing to offer disparate backup solutions hasn’t made much sense all along, and now that SkyDrive is offering 25gb of free storage, paying $50/yr for 50gb needed to go.  Pulling it, however, would have made OneCare a less compelling product.  A rock, as it were, and a hard place.

If Microsoft had succeeded with OneCare, it wouldn’t be pulling the plug now, regardless of the above discretions.  But OneCare hasn’t succeeded, and today’s announcement is more about terminating OneCare than it is about Morro, regardless of the spin.  And it remains to be seen whether running a less than stellar anti-malware engine as a free standalone will fare any better.

Not that Morro doesn’t present some compelling possibilities.  For one thing, OneCare’s failure may be more about the failure of the anti-malware suite in general than of any particular OneCare shortcomings.  Slow to load, hard to maintain, and a hard sell to consumers for any price other than “free with a rebate”, anti-malware programs aren’t a great consumer business to be in.  By offering a free, small footprint, no frills alternative, Microsoft gets out of a bad business, speeds up Windows, helps work on the malware problem (which MS rightly maintains is beginning to get real ugly, especially in emerging markets), and may help to position Windows Live as an answer to some of the “additional features” that OneCare tried to provide.

Still, we’re kind of sad to see OneCare go.  Less obtrusive than most, cute and almost pretty, OneCare seemed to try and do a good job, and not get too much in the way.  Here’s hoping Morro meets a better fate.