On Friday I had lunch with AVG's global security strategist, Larry Bridwell, who as well as working on his own company's antivirus software, consults to Homeland Security. That is, he's a very senior and well-connected guy on the security scene.
I had to query Larry about a rumour you hear whispered from time-to-time: that, behind the scenes, all the security software companies share information about the latest virus or malware outbreak. None of them want to look stupid by missing a major attack, so they deem it safer to share antidotes within four hours (or 24, depending on which version you've heard).
Larry replied that it is true that fixes are shared, within hours, but there's no formal agreement between the security software companies. Rather, he says, it's the case that there's a network of senior researchers who work for rival AV companies, but who have all worked together in the past and keep in close contact. It's these researchers who see themselves on a purist mission to defeat malware; a mission that transcends the commercial rivalry between the different businesses they happen to work for.
Symantec's ex country manager once mused about how some hardcore online gamers like to surf naked. That is, they turn of all antivirus and firewall software (which always slows your system to some degree). They assume they'll get infected, and deal with that eventuality by blow-torching their system, then restoring from back-up.
Certainly, that's a risky way to live. Yet it's also true that even if you're careful, no security software will protect you all the time. Particularly at a time, as AVG's Bridwell noted, when virus writers have moved from being show-offs, who wanted fame from sparking a major outbreak, to sneaky bank account detail stealers who don't want to corrupt any of your files, or otherwise alert you that they've been messing with your PC.
So it's no surprise that in some countries with proper broadband (i.e., not here) Symantec has, like Microsoft and others, added online back-up to its security solution.
I asked Bridwell if his company was considering online backup. He said yes, maybe sometime, but that you also have to consider the trade-off between features and speed.
And certainly his company's product has always done well on that score, thanks to AVG's small footprint on your hard drive and, much more importantly, small footprint in your system's memory. In PC World testing, AVG has always rated strongly in the System Slowdown section of our benchmarks. Last time round it slowed our test system by just 2%, while rival brands slowed it by up to 10% or more.
Google, Microsoft, lions, bears, nuclear war
Try as I might, I failed to goad Bridwell into criticising Microsoft's entry into the security software market, Windows Live OneCare. He noted that the Microsofties have head-hunted a crack team of developers, raiding Symantec, McAfee, CA ("a whole team from Melbourne") and others for talent. He said the net result, so far, was "not a bad product, but not a great product either." Like others, he sees OneCare's threat being at the consumer and small business end of things, with most larger companies wanting a "layered" security approach involving more than one company.
Bridwell did volunteer, unsolicited, that his greatest fear is Google entering the security software market. The search giant has hired a number of security gurus, and done a lot of development in this area. However, for now, Bridwell thinks the effort is entirely aimed at keeping Google's own house secure.
Fewer clicks, more sales
AVG does have something in common with Google: its core product is free (and appears on NZ PC World's cover DVD most months, along with other free security tools from a variety of vendors). Worldwide, Bridwell says that 1.7% of users of free-version users upgrade to the commercial version.
The conversion rate used to be under 1%. Like all software companies, AVG thinks its product is getting better and better. However, in this particular instance, the recent boost was due to better web design. "It used to take six clicks to buy it," said Bridwell. "Now it takes three."