May 08, 2008


Norton 360, version 2.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $79.99.

Norton Ghost 14.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $69.99.

      What would it take to get Symantec to produce an all-in-one suite of a protective product, rolling its engineering excellence into a single offering to provide a full measure of safety against online threats, clogged computer processes, system crashes and much more? Unfortunately, it may take a mass exodus from the company’s increasingly complex product line to get Symantec to take a step back toward all-in-one protection. Someone should tell the company that that would actually be a step forward.

      For several years now, it has been the seamless integration of multiple functions within Symantec’s products that has given them the edge over lower-cost, shareware and freeware offerings that perform many of the same functions just about as well. But because Symantec increasingly splits up the functions of its Norton product line into individual packages, the seams are starting to show, and it is getting harder for everyday computer users to figure out just what they ought to buy to get the most protection for their money.

      Case in point: one small business had both a Norton Protection Center icon and a Norton SystemWorks icon on one of its monitors. Suddenly, One Button Checkup started to run at an inconvenient time. It was only after 15 frustrating minutes of trying to reschedule this swift and clever little computer-analysis program through Norton Protection Center that someone realized it could only be found through Norton SystemWorks. That sort of illogic and confusion eats away at the respect that Symantec has spent many years building, and does not bode well for its future marketing efforts.

      And that brings us to Norton 360, version 2.0. This sounds like a do-it-all product, providing a full circle (360 degrees) of safety. But…well, not exactly. The basis of Norton 360 is Norton AntiVirus, which is as fine a virus catcher as you’ll find anywhere. Build on the Norton AntiVirus foundation by adding anti-hacker features, identity-theft protection and a measure of download safety and you get Norton Internet Security – a suite that you would expect, from its name, to be all you need for safe Web surfing. That’s more or less true, but Symantec can do even more. Add some tuneup tools for your computer and some backup utilities, including the ability to restore damaged and deleted files and folders, and you have (trumpet fanfare, please) Norton 360. And it’s a really fine product, featuring a single central screen where you can find out at a glance that you are in good shape (or not) in each of its four areas: security, identity protection, backup and tuneup. It’s reasonably easy to use, although its “Settings” screen resembles something out of Windows Vista (which is not a compliment) and its separate “My Account” screen adds an unneeded additional layer of complexity (although it works very well once you get used to it). The warning messages are clear, the icons are sensibly designed, and the ability to back up some data on the Web is a nice touch (although if you want more than two gigabytes of online storage, you’ll have to pay extra). So this really is Symantec’s go-to product, right?

      Well, no. Norton 360 is fine for most individual users and families, and at least some small businesses, but it won’t do for a complete backup of crucial data and applications, and also provide protective features necessary to maintain a network that is crucial to a company’s ongoing operations. That is where Norton Ghost 14.0 comes in. The venerable Norton Ghost line gets new refinements with each iteration – this version backs up to more places than earlier ones and features strong integration with the indexing capabilities of Google Desktop. This is a niche product, but it is an important niche: Norton Ghost allows backup of data, applications and settings, a full-system disk image that brings everything back after a catastrophic loss, and a way to recover from a total failure in which the entire operating system crashes. These features are unnecessary for many computer users but will be critical for others; hence the product differentiation here. And Norton Ghost is less friendly to average users than Norton 360: if FTP sites, remote network management and partitioning are not part of your everyday vocabulary, Norton Ghost is over-engineered for you.

      So there is some logic to the proliferation of Symantec’s products – even though all of them, in their similar-looking bright yellow boxes, appear to target the same users. In fact, Symantec might consider a color change for some products – ones for home and small-business use in one color, ones for larger businesses and IT departments in a different one. But this is only part of the solution, because a company that makes Norton 360, Norton Internet Security, Norton AntiVirus, Norton SystemWorks and several other partially overlapping offerings – every one of which deserves a (++++) rating for engineering excellence – is nevertheless inviting market confusion through insufficient clarity.

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