Are Free Antivirus Programs Disappearing?

Free antivirus programs have been a Windows staple, but you may not need to install them separately in the future.

Weighing in on Bitdefender’s announcement to retire its popular free antivirus product, cybersecurity experts feel that although the company officially says it’s retrenched the product to focus on multi-platform protection, Bitdefender’s hands could have been forced by factors that are plaguing other vendors as well.

“The malware problem has become too large and too costly to manage for a free product. More than a million new malicious programs appear every month. Analyzing them and implementing detection of them is tremendously costly in terms of money and efforts,” Dr. Vesselin Vladimirov Bontchev, antivirus and malware specialist at the National Laboratory of Computer Virology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, told Lifewire via Twitter.

The Cost of Free
Dr. Bontchev believes that a vendor’s other for-profit products usually offset the cost of maintaining free products. But this arrangement can only work to a certain extent, and when the costs increase too much, maintaining the free product is no longer tenable from a business point of view.

Koushik Sivaraman, CloudSEK’s VP of Cyber Threat Intelligence, agrees, saying that as he sees it, the free product serves Bitdefender little purpose besides bringing in captured data to enhance its user experience, which in itself can no longer justify the cost of maintaining a free product.

“It’s possible they have also realized that the security market is becoming significantly more invested in, and a free product with minimal features might do them more harm than good,” shared Sivaraman with Lifewire in an email.

Saturated Market
Morey Haber, chief security officer at BeyondTrust, explains the prevailing conditions by saying the market for free and freemium antivirus products has not just become a commodity in itself, but has also reached a point of diminishing returns.

“When a consumer has multiple choices for a solution, and there is no clear difference between vendors, even at the lowest price points, the cost to maintain the free solution and capitalize on free versions no longer is sustainable. This is especially true if the market is saturated,” Haber told Lifewire via email.

“The malware problem has become too large and too costly to manage for a free product.”

He believes that free variants of any software, including antivirus products, only make sense when its features can out-compete and successfully displace incumbent solutions.

While virtually all vendors used their distinct advantages in the early days to convert free customers into paying ones, Haber says that it’s no longer possible to do so for various reasons, which could be what led to Bitdefender shuttering their free variant.

The Home Advantage
Significantly, Haber believes that the emergence of Windows Defender, which offers just about the same features and is baked into the operating system itself in an already saturated market, has made it unfeasible for Bitdefender to keep throwing money at its free variant.

Sivaraman, too believes that it might have become “unviable” for vendors like Bitdefender to compete with Windows Defender in the free antivirus space.

His colleague, Darshit Ashara, associate VP at CloudSEK, goes as far as to suggest that “the need for free antivirus is not really prevalent in the market” anymore.

However, he’s quick to add that while Windows Defender is a good free option as far as free antivirus solutions are concerned, to capitalize on its advantage, Microsoft needs to pull up its socks if it hopes to become the “market leader and de-facto” choice for detecting malicious activity on the desktop.

Correction 12/16/21: Corrected the spelling of Darshit Ashara’s name in the second-to-last paragraph.

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