Does Auto-expiring Security Software Make Sense?

The latest version of Intego's VirusBarrier adds new features, and revises the interface of the antivirus application for the Mac. But lost amid the news of VirusBarrier X6's release on Wednesday was this little detail: Intego has removed your ability to actually "buy" the software."

Intego doesn't go out of its way to make this new "feature" apparent on the company's Website either. On the Buy Now page, I noticed this small footnote: "All programs include 12 months of protection, with updates to filters and programs included." When I asked for clarification on what "12 months of protection" meant, an Intego spokesperson stated it meant that the programs will stop working if they're not renewed after 12 months' usage.

To put it in plain language, your purchased copy of VirusBarrier X6 will actually stop protecting you (that is, it will not work at all) one year after purchase, unless you buy it again--which gains you a new version of the program, and another year of updates to the threat filters.

At first glance, this struck me a horrendous change, as I hate any self-destructing software. However, after looking at all the pros and cons, I've convinced myself that such an approach might not be all bad news for consumers.

To backtrack a bit, the previous version of VirusBarrier was sold as a combination of purchased software and an annual subscription to the virus definitions. If you didn't renew the subscription, the program would keep running, but not offer any protection from newer viruses. Still, you at least felt like you had some protection--but did you?

In the new model, on day 365, you're fully protected...and on day 366, if you don't renew, you have no protection at all. That's a big change from the past, at least in terms of perceived functionality.

Why the change?

I asked an Intego spokesperson why the company moved to this annual purchase model. "It is essential that Mac users stay up-to-date with their malware protection, and this model offers the best, most economical way to ensure that they are up-to-date not only with threat filters, but also with VirusBarrier X6 itself," he told me. "As new versions of the program are released, all Intego users will benefit from new methods of protection, and new means of blocking evolving threats."

Before you dismiss that as a bunch of marketingspeak, there's actually a very valid point in there: if your protection isn't current, the software isn't really useful--your sense of security will vanish as soon as a new threat evades your out-of-date software. But by then, it'll be too late.

With VirusBarrier X6, Intego has also recognized that viruses are a relatively small issue on the Mac. Internet-sourced attacks, via malware that can be installed by an illegitimate third-party QuickTime codec or pirated software, are a much bigger concern. VirusBarrier X6 addresses these attacks by incorporating all the features of Intego's $70 NetBarrier X5 (which is no longer available).

So now, by installing one program, you're protected from both types of attacks. As a user, I welcome this change--Internet-related attacks concern me much more than do traditional viruses. (I don't run traditional anti-virus software as a matter of course, but I do use tools to protect myself from Internet-based attacks. Apple recommends users run anti-virus software, while Chris Breen ponders whether you need anti-virus tools or not.)

The economics

If Intego had done nothing other than change the purchase model for VirusBarrier, I'd be using this space to rip them to shreds. But that's not the case--the company not only improved the program, it changed the economic model.

VirusBarrier X5 was a $70 program, plus $30 per year to keep the virus definitions current, and it was licensed for one Mac. If you have a desktop and a laptop, VirusBarrier X5 cost $200 over two years. If you were also concerned about Internet attacks, you'd need NetBarrier (another $70 + $30 for the subscription), and again, you'd have to buy it separately for two Macs. In total, over two years, you'd be out $400 in purchase and subscription costs for these two programs on your two Macs (or $200 on one Mac).

VirusBarrier X6 is $50, and another $50 every year to renew (repurchase), but it's good for two Macs. It also includes all the features of NetBarrier, so you no longer need to purchase that--meaning you spend $100 over two years, instead of $400. That's real savings, and you only have to use one program to get full protection. That's good. (If you've got a house full of Macs, the Family Pack covers five machines for only $70, or $14 per year per Mac.)

Note that this analysis looks worse if you never purchased a subscription under the old model, and own only one Mac. In that scenario, your original cost is $70, and that's your two-year cost as well, saving $30 over the new model. Without the updated virus definitions, however, your protection is probably more mental than physical--any new attacks would skate past your out-of-date software.

But it expires!

While I hate--and that's not really even a strong enough word--software that expires, I can (somewhat) understand how it makes sense in the narrowly-defined world of security software. This is, after all, the norm for Windows security software (and for Symantec's Mac products as well). The argument is basically that out-of-date security software isn't any better than no security software, and I generally agree.

Intego has made the price of the product more affordable, so even if you have to buy it again every year, you're saving a lot of money over the prior model (assuming you subscribed to virus updates). In addition, you not only get new threat definitions, but new versions of the program itself, including new detection methodologies, features, and user interface improvements.

As a user, though, I hate that customer loyalty is completely ignored in this model. "Great, you've been a customer for 12 years? Bought everything we've ever made? Thank-you-very-little, please pay the same price as everyone else." Intego's competitors, if they're smart, will offer a "switch now" incentive to VirusBarrier customers who are facing their annual repurchase requirement. After all, if there's no financial incentive to stay with Intego, why not consider making a switch when you have to purchase a new program anyway?

So is it a good move for users?

As much as I hate software that expires, after looking at both sides of this issue, I think this is a good move for consumers. Out-of-date security software really isn't useful at all. With this new model, consumers will always have both the latest software and the latest threat definitions, and they'll save money over the prior plan--especially if they have multiple Macs in the house.

So I think I understand why the change was made, I think it makes economic sense, and I can live with it...but what about you? Do you think this "buy every year" model is acceptable, or is it another step towards software as a service, and the end of actually owning the apps you use on your machine?

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