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'Love Bug' Warming the Hearts of Anti-Virus Software Makers

Computers: Outbreak raises public awareness of the need for security products, but it also showed the tools' limitations.

May 09, 2000|CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While most Internet users viewed the recent "Love Bug" software virus outbreak with alarm, a few producers of anti-virus security software greeted the obnoxious pest with open arms. By providing e-mail users with the means to inoculate their PCs, the vendors are basking in a worldwide spotlight of free publicity.

"Everybody needs anti-virus software," a point that the Love Bug hammered home better than any marketing message, said Jan Sundren, an analyst with Giga Information Group, a research firm based in Norwell, Mass.

The three leading anti-virus firms--Symantec Corp. in Cupertino, Calif.; Network Associates Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.; and Tokyo-based Trend Micro Inc.--already enjoy booming businesses. Their anti-virus software has been on the market for more than a decade, and the three companies have remarkably similar market capitalizations of about $3.5 billion each.

Most new computers placed in corporate environments come equipped with a full or trial version of one of their products, as do many consumer PCs. Consumer who choose to buy the software pay as little as $30 retail.

Neither Symantec nor Network Associates releases data on revenues by product class, but Trend Micro did about $104 million in sales from its anti-viral software last year.

Beyond competing with one another, their challenge is to increase the number of individual users equipped with anti-viral software, which is continually updated to control new threats. Those updates are provided free to users who have purchased a license to the product.

Experts say that more episodes such as the Love Bug outbreak may be inevitable. But once a virus is known it can be easily eradicated with current software products if used by individuals and as screening tools to protect corporate networks.

"Among the top vendors, the ability to detect known viruses is pretty comparable," Sundren said. They are all relatively fast and accurate. "But for a large company, there is the issue of how easy [anti-virus software] is to install and administer."

The companies make ease of use, service and added security features key selling points.

Rob Owens, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore., said that Network Associates and Symantec are the top two in market share, in part because they each offer a diversified range of software for protecting or managing corporate networks or software programs. The more-specialized Trend Micro places a distant third, he said.

But as the Love Bug outbreak boosts public awareness of the need for their products, the episode also carries a kind of warning for the companies, some experts say. Despite the wide availability of anti-virus software tools, the Love Bug bit deep worldwide.

"It underscores the fact that the [anti-virus] tools don't work that well" for previously unknown viral strains, Sundren said.

The solution--and the hottest research trend in the field--may be the development of tools that can screen invading software based on its behavior rather than a predetermined set of virus profiles compiled after an outbreak has occurred.

Researchers face a problem of building software tools that are aggressive enough to detect any possible virus, but not so general as to block benign software programs needed by users, said David Chess, a virus researcher with IBM Corp., which provides technology to Symantec.

This "false-positive" difficulty wastes time through needless alerts.

A Fairfax, Va.-based start-up, Pelican Security Inc., offers a software program that it says eliminates false positives. The company said that its product can prevent any e-mail attachment or software downloaded from the Web from modifying the Windows operating system or from activating other programs.

The Love Bug spread by triggering Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook e-mail product to send copies of the virus to every address on the infected PC's address book. If effective, such a product could prevent Love Bug-type threats from being spread via e-mail.

"There will always be some risk in using a computer," Chess said. But he predicted that ultimately online viruses and "worms" (the technical term for a malicious, self-contained software program such as the Love Bug) will be viewed as a minor annoyance by most users.

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