Antivirus Software: Doomed to Failure?

Category: Anti-Virus

Antivirus software is “doomed to failure” according to Symantec, maker of Norton Internet Security. That's pretty alarming. It sounds like we’re losing the war against malware… barbarians have breached the castle walls and the best we can do is fight them from room to room. But the truth is something quite different. Read on!

Is Antivirus Software A Lost Cause?

A recent Wall Street Journal article quotes a senior Symantec exec, Brian Dye, saying antivirus “is dead” and cites his estimate that antivirus software currently catches only about 45 percent of cyberattacks.

Symantec is retreating from the consumer antivirus defense market that it helped to pioneer, focusing instead on what to do about malware that has already breached the defenses of a computer or network. It's a shift from "protect" to a "detect and respond" mentality. That sounds like an admission of defeat to me.

Symantec and other commercial cybersecurity firms are, indeed, retreating from a battle they can’t win: the battle against free antivirus software such as AVG, Avast!, MalwareBytes Anti-Malware, and many others that I have described over the years. (See my related article Free Anti-Virus Programs.)
AntiVirus is Dead

“We don’t think antivirus is a moneymaker in any way,” is the rest of Mr. Dye’s “antivirus is dead” statement. It’s not that antivirus software doesn’t work, it’s just that there’s not enough profit in consumer antivirus to satisfy Symantec. Therefore large corporations like Symantec and McAfee are going where smaller cybersecurity companies can’t play: the lucrative “enterprise consulting” business, where numbers of employees matter.

That will mean less emphasis on the consumer side. The average household isn’t going to hire a team of MBAs with computer science degrees to figure out which neighbor is stealing its WiFi.

Consumers Have Choices Going Forward

Symantec, McAfee, et. al., are not going to drop their consumer-grade antivirus products, but those products are likely to get few development dollars in the future. The performance gap between them and the free products from smaller firms is likely to grow. And that can only diminish the value of those paid security tools as time goes on.

The best free antivirus programs stop upwards of 99 percent of infections before they can take root, not just 45 percent. (See Best Antivirus Programs for 2014.)

“Cyberattacks” include more than just viruses. Phishing for victims who willingly give up their sensitive information to hackers disguised as Nigerian princes, trusted business partners, or long-lost friends is another form of cyberattack. So is old-fashioned breaking-and-entering of a computer network by brute force or clever guessing of the correct password. It’s viruses that are becoming obsolete, not antivirus software.

There are two lessons for consumers in all of this. First, ditch the corporate cybersecurity trialware that comes with a new computer. It's clear that Symantec, McAfee, et. al., are are focusing more on deep-pocketed business customers, and less on consumers’ security needs.

Second, check out some of the excellent free Internet security tools. My article Should You BUY Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware Software? has some tips on mixing up your own anti-malware cocktail, and which ones I use in my own personal security arsenal.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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This article was posted by on 8 May 2014

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Most recent comments on "Antivirus Software: Doomed to Failure?"

(See all 22 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Toto! I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.
I must agree with Unitary (which would mean that I am disagreeing with the EDITOR'S NOTE). Based on the principle of "Caveat Emptor"; an educated PC user will most likely choose NOT to pay for an A/V suite when s/he can get it au gratis but only if s/he does not have a money tree in the backyard.
This is a similar argument to the one being in the minds of those who still have a landline for phone service!

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Come again? Why will other companies make serious investments in products that they give away for free? Serious investments aren't eliminated by better management, lower overhead, efficiency or execution

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Thank you so much, Bob, for your words of truth and wisdom here about the leading pay-for-use anti-virus products packed on trial basis with so many PCs (and income-tax programs). They were once useful in their day and I used both the 2 top ones, but times have changed. I suspected as much and am greatly relieved to hear your confirmation.

Posted by:

08 May 2014

The ONLY logical, rational choice is ESET's NOD32.
To use anything else would be too risky, and frankly, not very smart. The WORST choice would be Microsoft's rubbish.

Posted by:

08 May 2014

@Unitary: As I see it, those "other companies" have done exactly what you ask for many years! I've been using Avast for a long time now, and it works far better than many "Big-Buck-Company-AV-Products"... so, from where I stand, I think the answer to your question is a very very big "Yes, and that's already happening".

Bob, as always, an excelent article!

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Excellent article and analysis. If Symantec, McAfee and Kaspersky want to get out of the anti-virus game, I won't miss them one little bit.

Posted by:

Kaarlo von Freymann
08 May 2014

My daughter works for a paid Antivirus creator since 10 years. I keep asking "Knowing the immorality of the PC world (Microsoft is to me the the perfect example of a leader in a totally corrupt industry), where is your lab that develops viruses for you to be the first to be able to "find"? Do you really believe small companies like yours are clean when some of the worlds biggest companies for instance in the medical field like Roche are caught selling rubbish for billions of dollars to silly, incompetent or bribe accepting health officials?"
I am not the least surprised Symantec (who sold me a PC Recovery Program that never worked and left me out in the cold chatting with a guy in India who knew less about the program than I did) is switching emphasis from consumer antivirus. What is not quite clear to me: on what do those providing free antivirus make their money, on the HOPE that people will upgrade to the paid version ?

Kaarlo von Freymann Helsinki Finland

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Bob ... Lots of us have known, for years that Norton, Symantac and McAfee have been overly, bloated programs!!! Heavens, I knew back in 1997, NOT to ever install Norton, period.

I used the FREE versions of both AVG and Avast!, for years and managed to "stay" virus free or at least, when a virus was found, it was put into "quarantine." I would then, either delete it or know that it was a "false positive" ... Mostly, I delete those items in "quarantine", for safety reasons. It's only been the past year, that I have the Pro or Premium or Internet Security versions, on my PC. I wanted to have Auto-Scheduling, instead of manually doing my scanning and so on. So far, everything is working properly and whatever is "bad", has been caught by my protective programs ... Except for the Conduit issue, which was done with a download and installation, from CNET.

I see that, Symantec sees the "writing on the wall." They have literally, abused their own customers with a product that was great, in it's day ... But, simply does NOT make the grade today and hasn't for over a decade, at least ... In my opinion, okay?

@ Randio ... Randio, I usually agree with most of your posts, but on this one point, I disagree. I still have a Landline phone. Sorry, but, I want a phone, that will work when I need it. My Hubby has 11 Coronary Stents in his heart and I want to be able to get to 911 and you can't do that with a VoIP service and sometimes, even with a cell phone. A Landline phone will give the right address and all the information, that any emergency team will need. So, please know why some still want a Landline phone. I also, have a cell phone, so, Hubby can reach me, when I am not at home. :)

Posted by:

Peter Ballantyne
08 May 2014

Interesting trend Bob. I remember when free antivirus for consumers was rare and greatly prized. The thinking was make a consumer version free and everyone will use it so helping to reduce the overall problem with viruses etc running unchecked. Perhaps that issue might come back to bite them in the butt. And maybe their consumer level stuff would sell better if they made the prices more realistic. I've always felt that the pricing was excessively greedy for a consumer level product.

Posted by:

08 May 2014

Spot on Bob IMO - saw this coming yonks ago and not surprised in the least on your take and recent developments.

Any organisation seeking to exploit free good products have a flawed business model and are fated to fail.

Posted by:

08 May 2014

I have not used a pay-for antivirus for some time now. I was using Symantec, but when they took my cc payment for a download which would not work with my computer, and I could not find anyone with Symantec that would rectify the problem (even getting to a human was extremely difficult and then, when I did reach one who said he would have the cc charges reversed, nothing happened), I gave up on them. At least if the free ones don't work, I haven't lost anything. And they seem to work just fine.

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
08 May 2014

At your recommendation, Bob, I use Avast and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, and I have upgraded Malwarebytes to their paid professional version.

A few weeks ago, some kind of nastyware wreaked havoc on my machine, in spite of these two protections. The nastyware disabled a key protection feature of the Malwarebytes product and disabled Windows Firewall, among many other gotchas.

My computer maker, Dell, refused to investigate my problems, even though I have a paid service contract with them.

The Malwarebytes support people really came through! I was assigned a support team member who worked diligently with me, via e-mail, over several days. Together, we were able to completely restore my operating system.

I'm a believer in Malwarebytes! ... Not so much in Dell any more.

Posted by:

08 May 2014

I have employed two primary methods of security on my systems over the past fifteen years. I do use one of those paid for suites, which has proven to be very effective during that time. No I do not think the free Security Programs are not as good, I just enjoy the support I get from shelling out the money. The second system I use, is free, it is ME! I am extremely careful about what I click on and I am just as vigilant as to what I download and from whom. I go to the source for software. I have always known that nothing is bullet proof but by being careful and having a respectable Security Program I've only been wounded twice over the years. I have received many infected e-mails, so even people I know can't be trusted, because they don't check what they send /forward. Software security companies are no different from any other business, in that their bottom line is the only real interest they have, period.

Posted by:

Sarala Lee
09 May 2014

There are two drawbacks I have found when using Google Chrome, both when wanting to search for text on the webpage.
I can only get at the 'find' facility by pressing the "Customise and Control" button top right, and then selecting "find". It suggests you can start it by pressing "Ctrl+F" but that doesn't work.
The second problem is that the 'find' facility cannot search an image of text, eg. an image of an old printed publication like the London Gazette.
It can't do the OCR (optical character recognition) process going through the image, whereas IE can. That is a real problem when you have a lot of text to search. In fact on some occasions I've just given up searching visually - it's too difficult.
Is there a better way to solve these problems?
Sarala Lee.

Posted by:

09 May 2014

I have become a huge fan of ESET Smart Security suite - have been using it for 3 years with no problems. It has just received a top rating from Consumer Reports, and justly so. I can understand trying to keep a budget, but ESET always goes on sale toward the end of the year for about $20 for the 3 computer version. That amounts to less that $7 per computer - a small price to pay for such a superior product. The icing on the cake is that ESET gives you a free upgrade to the latest version as soon as it becomes available!

Posted by:

Joe Shaffer
09 May 2014

Great article, and take on the future Bob. As a small computer builder, consultant, and dedicated Rankinite, I have for years been steering customers toward the inexpensive and free protection software recommended by you. Though I have been into computers since BC "Before Computers" (USN) trained in the 70s, I consistently turn to your column for proven and well presented advice. Thanks, and keep up the GR8, work! Joe, Walla walla, WA

Posted by:

09 May 2014

I have got sick and tired of SPAM and popups from McAfee. The tray icon has in the past popped up messages offering me discounts if I renew NOW. These were months before my licence was due for renewal.

I have also received endless emails from them with supposed discount offers.

I tried to communicate with them via their customer support website, but no matter what options I selected, the option to email them was always greyed out. I finally sent an email to, info@, help@, subscriptions@, etc, etc and I seemingly got through to someone because I got a reply that said :

"the issue you have described is a technical related concern. However, as much as I would like to help you to resolve your issue, I deeply regret that I will not be able to personally assist you because we at Customer Service are not trained to handle technical issues and we do not have the tools to correct such errors.

So in this instance, I would recommend you to contact our technical Support team consists of specialized technicians who could assist you with your issue. You can call our toll free number 0800 028 7581 to reach our technician. Our Technical Support Team works round the clock."

Goodbye McAfee - welcome AVG or one of the others kindly recommended by Bob Rankin !!

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
09 May 2014

For those who don't understand the economics of free anti-virus software, I recommend a book I read several years ago titled "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" by Chris Anderson. His basic thesis, bolstered by many fascinating examples, is that it can make a lot of sense (and often a lot of money) to give things away for free. This is especially true with electronic items such as software, where the marginal production and distribution costs are practically nil. Once the software has been created, today's cheap web site and bandwidth costs means there's very little difference between sending out 10 copies or 10,000 copies of a program and its updates. Maybe only 1% or 2% of the users will upgrade to a paid version, but if the user base is large enough that can still be sufficient to cover all of the free-riders. And those "free-riders" are really the company's marketing arm. Their recommendations and overall market penetration are what drives the revenue side.

This is in fact Bob Rankin's business model. He gives away a fantastic amount of free but highly useful advice. People recommend him to their friends so that his audience grows. He makes his money through advertising and the sale of his books. It's a win-win for everyone.

Posted by:

10 May 2014

These companies that are dropping their consumer product lines.From most of the research that I've done on this type of product. They have been progressively developing inferior products over the years.The reason that I think they are doing this is.They think they know what is best for the consumers.What ever happen to consumer feed back analysis.That is what these companies are over looking IMHO.So I say " good riddance" to their lack of concern and their self preceived
superiority!Before I would install one of them or any other type of product on my computer.My advice
,is to first do a through evaluation and research
on any type of product you want to purchase.
It seems to me that any well developed bussiness plan should put their customers needs and concerns first.IMHO that is what makes a great company to do bussiness with.So,thank you very much to the companies that follow this kind of bussiness plan.I don't mind paying for a product from a company that holds to these principles and bussiness plans! And THANK YOU very very much for people like Bob Rankin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by:

Steve Matzura
11 May 2014

There's a growing and marketable community of computer users with vision impairments that use screenreader technology to render the contents of what's on-screen in synthetic speech, and many of the better-quality a/v and lately malware programs do not work with this technology. Too bad, as this means that computer users with visual impairments are being totally ignored and left out of the game because the designers of said software are more interested in eye-candy than getting the real job done. On the other hand, programs that *are* accessible with screenreaders, such as Vipre, statistically come up short in a/v and m/w best-of roundups. This definitely needs to change.

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