It took Michael Kelly, CEO of Californian market research firm, Techtel, just minutes to buy McAfee's software. But getting the antivirus vendor to stop charging his credit card was another matter altogether.
McAfee is on the vanguard of a new trend in the security software industry: selling software as a service that is automatically billed each year. McAfee began automatically renewing customers in 2001, but over the past year the practice has become much more common as Symantec and Microsoft, with its new Windows Live OneCare products, have adopted the automatic renewals.
The vendors say these programs are good for consumers. As many as twothirds of antivirus users postpone subscription renewal, it is argued, leaving PCs unprotected from the latest attacks. But as Kelly discovered after spending more than half an hour trying to drop his McAfee antivirus subscription, the automatic renewals have a downside too.
"The best practice has turned into the one that's best for the company and not for the customer," he said.
Complaints like Kelly's may start piling up as more PC users become enrolled in automatic update programs. In early November 2005, Symantec began enrolling North American customers in automatic renewal by default, and it has now expanded the practice into Europe. By next year the program, called Ongoing Protection, will be worldwide, according to senior director of product marketing, Javed Hasan.
The vendors have taken steps to prevent customers from being surprised by automatic renewals. Like Microsoft and McAfee, Symantec's sign-up forms make it clear that online customers are entering an automatic renewal program, and the vendors send a notification email to customers before they place new charges on credit cards.
So far a large majority of customers we are allowing Symantec to auto-renew subscriptions, Hasan said.
"We are very happy with the results that we're seeing now," he said. While automatic renewals could be convenient, they would make software license management more complicated for small businesses that are not cutting volume license deals, Rescuecom national marketing director, Josh Kaplan, said. Rescuecom is a computer services company in New York. Companies would need to keep tabs on subscriptions to make sure that they were not charged subscription fees for PCs that were no longer in use, and the automatic renewals would inject some complexity into any efforts to switch security software vendors, he said.
Kaplan said many of his customers had been caught unprepared for the switch to automatic renewals, although this was not necessarily a bad thing.
"I have had customers who tell me their antivirus is expired, and who are actually renewed," he said. "I haven't had any angry customers yet regarding that, but I've had quite a few surprised ones." Online customers are being registered in these auto-renewal programs by default, though they won't be able to do this in some countries, where the practice is outlawed. Customers who purchase products at retail, or who have the security software pre-installed on their PC may not be entered into autorenewal. In North America, for example, there is no way for McAfee, Microsoft and Symantec customers to opt out of the program during the online sign-up process. But both McAfee and Symantec offer users a way to keep charges from automatically showing up on their credit cards one year later.
When Symantec customers sign up for security products the company sends them a link to a cancellation form they can complete to opt out of autorenewals. Things are not so simple with OneCare. Customers who have purchased the product online have only one way to opt out of automatic renewals: they can cancel their subscriptions altogether.
One year into Ongoing Protection, Symantec still has some bugs in the cancellation process.
Customers who don't save their initial email with the link to the cancellation form are supposed to be able to drop the service on Symantec's customer account portal. But because of a glitch in the system, Symantec is now falsely notifying new customers that they "do not have any products or services with automatic renewal turned on" even though they are signed up for automatic renewals by default.
It takes about a month after purchase for the portal to register the fact that customers were enrolled in automatic renewals, a company spokesperson said. The company expected to iron out this bug within the month.
Selling software as a service is nothing new - the industry has been slowly adopting this model for several years now - but security software is a little different, according to executive director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, John Palfrey.
"Companies in this business have a special obligation not to violate the same rules that they are accusing others of violating," he said. "I don't think any different rules should apply to a large antivirus provider than should apply to someone offering a free screen saver." Michael Kelly thinks renewing customers should be given the same kind price breaks that are commonly used to entice new customers, but despite his experience, he still likes the idea in principle. "The benefits are good, as long as they maintain good two-way communication and make it easy for you to cut it off," he said.
Narasu Rebbapragada contributed to this article.