This week saw the first anniversary of the launch of the Security Essentials free anti-virus from Microsoft.

It could be argued that the launch put a large amount of credibility into the free download sector, while formally announcing the technology giant's move into security software.

Cliff Evans, head of privacy and security at Microsoft, told SC Magazine that the software had seen one and a half million downloads in its first week and as it marks its first birthday, there are now 30 million active users.

Now I am not here to get into a debate about how many users each security vendors have, or what constitutes an ‘active user', but for a debut product from the world's biggest technology company this is a decent figure.

Evans said: “This is a big number in a short time and it is great to see people picking it up and using it. Some people may have no anti-virus or had a computer with a trial that ended or is now out of date, pick any fully featured product and this is as good and keeps you up-to-date in the background.”

SC took a proper look at the product on its launch, with a description of its download and installation process and scan and it has to be said that while not particularly flashy or feature-heavy, it is a practical and efficient piece of software.

Evans said that over the past year 400 million threats have been detected and 366 million were removed by the choice of the user. This, he said, gives Microsoft ‘a good set of data to improve Security Essentials and wrap into updates for Windows and Internet Explorer'.

“We process this information through our Security Intelligence report where there are a number of things we see again and again,” he said.

In terms of future announcements, Evans confirmed that Security Essentials will be pre-installed on the HP Envy range of laptops, initially only to the US and to the UK at a later date. Also, free licences are also now available to small businesses with ten PCs or fewer.

Research by Panda Security last year found that the UK is the largest user of free security software, with 57 per cent of SMBs using free software against a European average of 38 per cent. 

Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, said: “Microsoft took the decision of offering their product for free when they realised that their attempt of a home user paid product was not working. Then they decided to release a free product that is a basic anti-virus protection. It does not include protection technologies that nowadays we consider ‘essential' in any modern security solution.

“For home users and companies that really find relevant their online security there are a number of alternatives, including free solutions, as our Panda Cloud anti-virus that apart from offering anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, also includes extra security layers, such as behavioural analysis.”

Asked if Kaspersky Labs would ever consider offering a free anti-virus, its CTO Nikolay Grebennikov, said that there is no such thing as free anti-virus as you will pay for something'.

He said: “You can find malware but cannot disinfect it, such as with online games it is free to play but you have to pay for extra things. A good solution should be supported and people are not making it for free, with a good level of quality with decent technological support with free anti-virus it is good if you install it, but with cost of malware there is less support because our software is security oriented.

“Always fight against the next threats, the policy can work with games but it is not important as you can play without equipment. With security it is not about fun, this is not a place for jokes.”

Looking generally at the free anti-virus market, Evans said: “There is great choice out there and the fact is we have done it, people have a choice and can choose something different if adding protection.”

The fact is having free anti-virus is better than having nothing at all, I am sure most vendors would agree on that, but there is some truth in what Grebennikov said in that the best solutions are worth paying for.