PCs left unprotected as ZoneAlarm, Comcast's Norton struggle with Windows 8.1

At least two security software suites are struggling with Windows 8.1, leaving users potentially unprotected as they upgrade to the new version of Microsoft’s operating system.

Microsoft made it clear that apps added during the Windows 8.1 preview period would need to be reinstalled after upgrading to the General Availability (GA) release. But Check Point Software’s Zone Alarm Suite and the Comcast-supplied Norton Security Suite appear to providing additional headaches—in some cases, they simply have stopped working.

While I upgraded to and negotiated the Windows 8.1 upgrade process on my Surface Pro, I left another Windows 8 PC untouched until after the GA release. I then upgraded the PC. On Sunday night, I noticed the “Solve PC Issues” flag on that PC was highlighted. The problem, as it turned out, was that the Zone Alarm free firewall wasn’t working properly.

Or, as it turned out, it wasn't working at all. When I visited the Check Point website, I discovered that “Check Point was working hard” to develop a Windows 8.1 version of its app. In other words, that PC was apparently left unprotected for several days. And I wasn’t alone: “ZA Extreme was disabled when I installed Windows 8.1,” one user asked. “Will there be an update anytime soon?”

Check Point Windows 8
Uh oh. Compatibility issues!

Similar problems have been reported by users trying to use the version of Symantec’s Norton Internet Security suite that Comcast bundles as part of its high-speed Xfinity broadband service.

Fair warning delivered

It wasn’t like Microsoft didn’t give an early warning to developers to upgrade in time for Windows 8.1—in fact, after Microsoft initially decided not to provide Windows 8.1 via its developer channels, it relented and reversed course.  Late in August, Microsoft began shipping the final version of Windows 8.1 to OEM customers.

In all, developers like Check Point had more than a month to prepare. But Check Point appears to have last updated all of its security suites--from ZoneAlarm Extreme Security down to the free Zone Alarm firewall beloved by cheapskates everywhere--on Aug. 21, well before the GA release on Oct. 17.

In fact, if you own a WIndows 8.1 machine and want to download a ZoneAlarm product like the free firewall, you can—but be aware that Windows will alert you of a compatibility error and prevent you from installing it.

Check Point has been tardy before: it added Windows 8 support on Nov. 9, 2012, according to its release notes. But as rival security vendor Kaspersky proved, it is indeed possible to prepare for Windows 8.1 ahead of time, and to release an software update that would be in sync with the latest version of the OS.

At this point, Check Point can only offer a beta version of Zone Alarm Extreme that includes Windows 8.1 support—but, as this thread notes, it’s a beta, with all the corresponding problems that betas could bring to the table. A spokeswoman for the company said that a Windows 8.1 compatible version of the software would be released this week, and customers running Windows 8.0 would be notified that it was safe to upgrade.

Is Comcast involved?

Both Intel’s McAfee division and the Symantec Norton security utilities also appear to have negotiated the Windows 8.1 transition without problems. That’s not the case for those users who downloaded the software via Comcast. A thread on the Norton forums details some of the problems: after upgrading, users are informed that Norton Internet Security isn’ty available in compatibility mode.

The problem, however, appears to be tied to Comcast. A support engineer posted the following apology in a Comcast support thread last week:

We appologize for the timing on this issue, and we understand the frustration. The latest version of Norton Security Suite 20.4.0.40 is already compatible with WIndows 8.1. Users must be on this version of NSS however before the update to Windows 8.1.

You may install a trial version of NIS in the meantime to be fully protected in WIndows 8.1. We are working on posting a fully supported version of Norton Security Suite for Windows 8.1 sometime next week, we will post and update once a set date is confirmed.

Comcast has yet to post the fully supported version of NIS 2013, but—as the engineer noted—users can install a trial version in the interim.

If you do discover that your firewall or security suite has been disabled following a Windows 8.1 update, at least ensure that Windows Defender is up and running; it’s better than nothing.

For years, Zone Alarm has been the darling of consumers unwilling to shell out for high-end, comprehensive security solutions; freebies from your ISP provide a nice incentive to keep on buying Internet service from them, too.

]But problems like these may inspire you to consider re-evaluating your security provider—if you’ve been left in the lurch, you might want to consider a more dependable developer.

Updated at 4:27 PM with a statement from Check Point.

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