Free antivirus programs such as Microsoft's Security Essentials (MSE) have now supplanted more complex paid software as the antimalware defense of choice for millions of consumers, figures from certification company OPSWAT have suggested.
In its quarterly analysis of the security software running on 43,000 computers around the world between March and May 2011, OPSWAT found that well-known brands such as McAfee, Symantec and Trend Micro are continuing to be pushed down the popularity tables by mostly European rivals marketing on the basis of either a free-to-use or "freemium" (free with paid upgrades available) model.
Globally, the two most commonly encountered brands were Czech companies Avast Software and AVG, tied with being detected on 12.3 percent of systems each, ahead of Avira of Germany on 12.2 percent, Microsoft on 11.2 percent, and ESET Software, also of Germany, on just under 10 percent. Traditional security brand leaders, Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro were found on only 8.77 percent, 4.5 percent and 2.15 percent of systems respectively.
In terms of individual products, the most popular program was Microsoft's Security Essentials with 10. 6 percent market share, ahead of Avira's Antivir Personal Free with 10.2 percent, Avast Free Antivirus with 8.66 percent, and AVG Antivirus Free with 7.92 percent.
The most common subscription antivirus programs were Eset Software's Nod32 Antivirus with 7.25 percent, Kaspersky Lab's Internet security with 4.31 percent and Norton Antivirus with 4.3 percent.
The rise of Microsoft Security Essentials has been particularly striking in North America, where according to OPSWAT it is now found on just over 15.7 percent of PCs, ahead of AVG on 10.4 percent and Avast on 7 percent. Even here, however, the European upstarts have gained traction, with ESET Software, Avira, and AVG easily making into the top 10 of most common antivirus applications.
But what is making the free-to-use and freemium programs so popular all of a sudden? After all, free antivirus suites have been around for years but have tended to be seen as the poor relations to paid software.
One answer is simply the influence of Microsoft Security Essentials, a totally free program launched by Microsoft in 2009 after fitful and generally failed attempts by the company to sell paid antivirus protection going back to the days of Windows XP.
The software has been given generally good reviews, despite a recent independent test that put it near the bottom in terms of its ability to detect zero-day software exploits. Many users might see it as a zero-cost way of getting perfectly adequate protection from a brand that is guaranteed to stick around.
A second and intriguing possibility in an age where fake antivirus programs have become one of the biggest malware issues of the Internet, is that there has been a flight to the safety of better-known brands that don't demand a subscription fee. Certainly, the market remains hugely fragmented and confusing for consumers, which could be fuelling a gradual consolidation.
"In North America, fifty-one different antivirus vendors were detected in this report. The top five of those vendors combined to control 62.8 percent of the antivirus market," OPSWAT's analysis notes. "The worldwide market is slightly more distributed, with sixty-two vendors and 58.2 percent of the antivirus market controlled by the top five vendors."
With the popularity of PCs now waning in developed countries, and a growing number of consumers unwilling to pay for protection, the future of paid antivirus software now looks bleak. The brands that survive the likely shakeout will need to carve out niches in new markets such as mobile and smartphone protection, or by selling more advanced encryption and online backup security. Some might follow McAfee's fate, and be bought by larger companies that see security and antivirus protection as strategic rather than profitable in its own right.
Founded in 2002, OPSWAT makes its money selling a range of malware testing tools and SDKs of the sort that would be used by security vendors in software development. It also offers free tools to consumers, including the App remover utility to fully de-install antivirus software, and Filterbit, an online tool that scans suspicious files.