Symantec Corp. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Thompson has had a bumpy ride over this past year. He closed one of the largest software company acquisitions in history — last year’s US$10.2 billion purchase of Veritas Software — and has been dealing with executive departures and a company reorganization. But perhaps the most serious disruption of all has come from a formidable new competitor into the company’s security software business: Microsoft Corp.
Thompson recently invited the IDG News Service to his company’s unpretentious Cupertino headquarters (The 16,000-employee company shares an address with a law firm and an electronics marketer) to share his thoughts on Microsoft and security, and to explain which Microsoft competitor he sees Symantec emulating in its upcoming fight. Hint: It’s not Red Hat Inc.
IDG News Service (IDGNS): Where are you most worried about competing with Microsoft?
John Thompson: I’m not worried about Microsoft at all. Let’s be clear about that. If anything my focus is on making sure we can deliver the level of innovation and the level of visibility or of capabilities that we always have. And to the extent that Microsoft plays fairly, there is a level playing field and I don’t worry about Microsoft. If they do something that is unfair, clearly we will be watching and I’m sure others will as well.
Microsoft is synonymous with a lot of things in the software and technology industry. Security is not one of them. And they’ve got a long way to go to demonstrate not only capability, but to deliver and build a reputation of being able to support a vast array of users in that regard.
IDGNS: They’ve changed though.
Thompson: Have they? In what way?
IDGNS: Just in the marketing alone. The fact that they’re talking about security.
Thompson: Well I think that’s good for the whole industry. And the fact that Microsoft is going to put enormous money behind raising the awareness and consciousness that people have that they need to secure their connected experience. That’s good for Microsoft, but by the way, that’s good for us. That’s good for the world at large. So I don’t think that is necessarily a manifestation of a change in Microsoft. That’s a manifestation of the realization that awareness is an important element of getting people to act.
IDGNS: You’ve said for a while that innovation is where you want to compete, but people who have had success against Microsoft — and I’m thinking of IBM and the open-source community, for example — have had luck in creating partnerships. Are there key partnerships that you have?
Thompson: Well I would argue that the most successful defensive battle against Microsoft was Intuit. Nobody makes any money in open source, so I don’t know how you declare that a success. But clearly, Intuit doubled down and said, “Look we’re going to out-innovate Microsoft. We’re going to run harder than they are to deliver a series of capabilities that are very compelling to our user base.” And guess what, Microsoft had to acquiesce, pull in their horns and work somewhere else.
IDGNS: So is that a model for you?
Thompson: I think that is a wonderful, wonderful example.
IDGNS: Are you still thinking of holding back Norton 360 (Symantec’s upcoming competitor to Windows Live OneCare) until next year?
Thompson: It’s less about when the code is going to be ready. When’s the right time to launch the product?
The code is still targeted for being done in September. We’ll do our beta program this summer. Based upon the feedback we get there, the things we have to do, we’ll see whether we meet the current target. If it moves off that target, then you have to ask yourself the question, do you really want to introduce it in the Christmas selling season? That might create some confusion with other products that are already in the market.
IDGNS: One issue really came to people’s attention during the Sony rootkit incident: software vendors, or people providing you with technology, not letting you know what’s going on with your computer. Microsoft has gotten in trouble just in the last few weeks over Windows Genuine Advantage notification.
Thompson: I don’t think people are doing it for malicious intent. I think that’s the real issue that you have to get at. What is the intent of what someone might be doing with a capability embedded within your machine? Often times it’s to try to deliver a better level of service. It’s to try to provide insight back to the manufacturer so they can improve the product, as opposed to, “I want to do keystroke logging.”
So I think people need to step away from the fact that perhaps there was some piece of detective capability on the machine, to what was the intent and how did the company respond when it was made public. And I think Sony acted very responsibly, frankly.
IDGNS: Do you think this is something that the software industry in general could may be pay a little more attention to or do you think these are just exceptions? It sounds like it’s not really something that is on your mind.
Thompson: Spyware is on my mind. So people who put software on your machine to track activity that you’re engaged in while you’re using your machine, that’s on our mind. That’s a big issue. It undermines confidence that users have about operating in the connected world. And therefore, we are big-time focused on it. But I’m not focused on people who have typical business intent to deliver helpful products and services to make your experience better.