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At noon on June 23, Microsoft flipped the switch and started distributing the beta version of Microsoft Security Essentials—a free anti-virus application that succeeds Microsoft Windows Defender and OneCare service. Geared mostly toward consumers and home users, the application promises real-time protection against worms, viruses and other common pieces of malware.

Microsoft Security Essentials—code-named Morro—is the long-awaited anti-virus application the market has been anticipating since Microsoft bought Sybari and Giant nearly five years ago. While MSE’s various successors have enjoyed some degree of technical success, they failed to penetrate the market in any degree to make a dent in market leaders Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro.

>> BREAKING NEWS: Microsoft Shuts Off Availability to Anti-Virus Beta

MSE is also not the cloud-based service that Microsoft was reportedly going to bring to market. Early reports of Morro’s development dating back to November 2008 stated that the anti-virus app would be delivered as a service, and that all users’ traffic would flow through a Microsoft data center. Early reviews of MSE say that it’s primarily a client-based application that sends Microsoft data on infections and attacks for comparison and analysis. With that data, Microsoft is able to develop new signatures and make adjustments in protection levels.

While the anti-virus market has been perceivably locked up for years by market leaders Symantec and McAfee, many smaller vendors have claimed making gains in this commodity technology over the last two years. Dissatisfaction with license pricing and product performance has caused some Symantec and McAfee users to defect to new platforms.

Microsoft is not only trying to cash in on that defection wave, but capture a share of the still open anti-virus market. According to a survey commission by Symantec earlier this year, one-third of small businesses do not have anti-virus software and 5 percent of small and midsize businesses have no plans to purchase anti-virus software.

Some observers believe Microsoft will make some gains with MSE because it promises an adequate level of protection against malware at no cost.

Symantec has been quick to dismiss the launch of Microsoft Security Essentials, fielding statistics from a separate study it commissioned that states freeware anti-virus users have a higher potential for getting infected with a computer virus and that freeware users are far more casual about security management than users of paid security suites.

“Microsoft isn’t going to change the dynamics of the consumer security industry. The reality is that shareware and freeware vendors have been in the market for 20-plus years.  The freeware space is crowded and Microsoft is just joining the fray.  In addition, early reviews of the beta are showing that it underperforms when compared to existing freeware products, and well below paid solutions such as Norton AntiVirus,” said Dave Cole, senior director of product management for Symantec.