January 11, 2007


Norton Confidential. Windows XP. Symantec. $49.99.

     It is no longer necessarily true in the world of software that you get what you pay for. The economics of the Internet has turned on its head the old notion that something you get for nothing is worth exactly what you paid for it. There are excellent free programs available online to protect you against viruses, alert you to attempts to take you to a fraudulent Web site instead of a real one, warn you that a site you have already reached may not be what it pretends to be, and much more.

     All this puts a company such as Symantec in a quandary. The firm sells top-notch security products that are, taken individually, not significantly superior to similar software that is available for free. And improved security by other software companies – notably Microsoft – has the effect of poaching on Symantec’s protective turf, even though that is unlikely to be the reason Microsoft and other firms are making their products safer to use.

     Symantec is handling this new reality several ways: by improving its products regularly (good idea), by bundling multiple products together into suites that handle many functions and interact seamlessly (good idea), and by creating new standalone products designed to provide even further security enhancements (so-so idea). Norton Confidential is an example of a new standalone Symantec product that does just what it claims to do, does it well, and may nevertheless not be worth anything like its $50 price – or, indeed, worth any price at all.

     Norton Confidential provides online transaction security. It protects users against phishing (redirection to phony sites designed to resemble real ones); validates the security of sites that ask for personal financial data; protects against criminal programs that capture personal information during online transactions; and secures passwords and login information. These are all excellent goals, and Norton Confidential seems to do everything it says. That’s “seems” because it is impossible to prove a negative – if your data are not stolen by crimeware, you cannot know if any theft attempt was ever made and, if so, what blocked it.

     The difficulty with this program comes down to cost, on two levels. One is the cost of installing it: it requires 125 megabytes of hard-disk space, which may not be much nowadays but is still nothing to ignore. The other is the actual out-of-pocket cost: the $49.99 price buys the initial software and a single year of updates, after which you have to pay again to keep Norton Confidential effective. For many users, that will simply be out of line. Consider that you can get a huge amount of self-defense against illegitimate sites by simply looking at the URL before entering any information – to make sure it starts with https instead of just http. That costs exactly nothing. Then consider that features in Internet Explorer 7 and, even better, Firefox 2.0, provide warnings if you may be going to a fraudulent site – at a cost of zero. Then look at security features available through, for example, Google, which (again) can alert you if a site’s legitimacy is questionable, at (again) no cost. And there are a number of freeware and shareware programs available to provide still more levels of protection. But those programs are of variable quality, and that is ultimately where Symantec’s advantage lies. If you do not understand (or want to learn) how to set higher security levels through your browser or Internet search program; if you do not know how to tell good free offerings from bad, and do not want to be bothered to track down and regularly maintain and update the best software available online; then you can turn to Symantec, a company known for the quality of its products, and buy Norton Confidential to protect your data in many ways through a single program. That’s the selling point here – not officially, to be sure, but in reality.

     If you are careful and attentive, you don’t really need Norton Confidential for a high level of security when you are online, whether you are doing financial transactions or not. But if it gives you greater comfort than existing programs you probably already have (IE, Firefox) or already use (Google), if you would rather have Symantec keep its electronic eye on sites than keep your organic eye out for https in the URL, then you are the target market for Norton Confidential. What Symantec is selling here is not unique functionality but a unique level of user comfort.

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