A new generation of security software embodying a holistic vision of PC health is right around the corner. Besides offering updated security features, new software from AOL, McAfee, Microsoft, and Symantec promises backup services and PC-tuning utilities, with a different, yearly service type of pricing.

Microsoft kicked off the new trend at the end of May with its launch of Windows Live OneCare, which combines antivirus, antispyware, and firewall tools with Windows' defragging and cleanup utilities in one easy-to-use interface. OneCare backs up data to CDs, DVDs, and external hard drives – although not to network drives or online storage.

Not to be outdone, established security companies McAfee and Symantec are assembling competing offerings; even AOL is throwing its hat into the ring. McAfee's all-in-one package, Total Protection, came out in public beta in June, with a final version scheduled for late summer. Symantec's entry, Norton 360, should appear by March 2007, and on July 13, AOL unveiled a members-only beta of its Total Care suite. AOL will make the final version of Total Care available to nonsubscribers, although the company is not commenting on pricing. No final release date has yet been announced.

In addition to firewall, antispyware, and antivirus protection (AOL uses McAfee's engine for antivirus scanning), all three products will add varying types of antiphishing features. OneCare lacks these defences, probably because they're built into the new Internet Explorer 7.0. Like IE7, AOL's limited feature blocks known phishing websites. McAfee's and Symantec's more sophisticated offerings can also analyse other websites and rate the sites' safety.

AOL, McAfee, and Symantec are trying to outdo OneCare by supplementing their backup services with online storage. McAfee's Total Protection beta currently comes with 1GB of online storage. Symantec is still firming up pricing and features for its online backup service, and AOL says that it will be offering online backups, but not in time for the 13 July beta.

Priced to shift

Priced at $50 per year for three PCs, OneCare is less expensive than traditional security suites, which tend to be more expensive even for a single PC (with a yearly antivirus subscription fee on top). The cost covers all software updates, too; most traditional products do not. Clearly, consumers have found Microsoft's package enticing: According to NPD Group, a market research firm, OneCare ranked among the top eight pieces of software sold in the United States during its first two weeks on retail shelves.

Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis for NPD Group, expects similar pricing for Total Protection and Norton 360, although neither McAfee nor Symantec has specified prices. He anticipates improved customer service as the companies compete. Microsoft offers free phone-based tech support, compared to McAfee's $3-per-minute and Symantec's $30-per-incident phone support. Symantec is building real-time chat into its products, and AOL says its pricing will vary depending on the level of support it provides.

Microsoft's giant leap into the security software market caused quite a shake-up and, according to Swenson, that's a positive thing: "Consumers will benefit in the end."