Webroot Secures Future by Moving Consumer Anti-Malware Suite to Cloud

A few years back, the team at Webroot, a company that makes Internet security software, was at a crossroads.

Webroot was founded in Boulder, CO, in 1997 and had carved out a niche for itself in the consumer network security market during the mid-2000s with its product, Spy Sweeper. The software was among the most successful in its class, both with consumers and with reviewers.

The success enabled Webroot, a comparatively small, privately owned company, to hold its own against much larger competitors like Symantec and McAfee.

But by the end of the decade, things were different. The company’s products received middling reviews and were losing ground with consumers, according to CEO Dick Williams.

“We were seventh or eighth in every marketplace we were in. We were in standard, heavyweight desktop antivirus solutions, another [market] was hosted e-mail security solutions, and another was hosted Web-filtering solutions,” Williams said. “We weren’t the leader in any of those.”

Williams felt big changes were needed for Webroot to remain viable. Changes to the company’s corporate culture and business strategy—but most of all Webroot needed a better product, Williams said during an interview this summer.

“When you’re seventh or eighth in your marketplace, doing what you were doing a little bit better isn’t going to be too helpful. It’s no fun to be there, so we had to come up with something dramatically different, that we felt could change the whole playing field and hopefully change the whole industry in the process,” Williams said.

That something is Webroot SecureAnywhere, the company’s flagship anti-malware security suite. The latest version of SecureAnywhere was released earlier this month and is the third iteration of the product since it was introduced in 2011.

SecureAnywhere is unlike conventional security suites because it relies on the software-as-a-service, or SaaS, model to protect customers. Users install a surprisingly lightweight program on their computer or mobile device that stays connected to Webroot’s servers, runs an initial scan, and that’s pretty much it. Webroot manages all the threat detection work in the cloud and doesn’t need to send updates to users.

When users are online, SecureAnywhere also analyzes how programs are behaving, to try to spot new malware. If it finds something suspicious, it keeps track of what the program is doing so it can be undone if it proves to be malicious.

When a user finds malware, Webroot is immediately notified of the problem, its cloud-based software takes measures to defend the entire network, and every Webroot client is protected all at once, said Brian Coffey, product manager for the consumer line of SecureAnywhere. There’s strength in numbers, and with each new user, Webroot creates a stronger network, at least in theory.

“All the endpoints act as malware researchers,” Coffey said.

Conceptually, it’s a huge difference from traditional security applications that required users to continually download updates (and make sure they hadn’t turned off crucial features) while protecting every computer individually. There’s a big functional difference as well, as security suites had a well-earned reputation for being huge beasts that ate up storage and memory and were notorious for hurting performance. Webroot gave me a copy of SecureAnywhere to test, and it is barely noticeable.

Each version of SecureAnywhere has earned strong reviews and improved on the model Webroot rolled out in 2011. For this year’s version, Webroot decided to emphasize improving its user interface, support of mobile devices, and anti-phishing tools, Coffey said. It also gives the Mac version more of the features found in the Windows version, and users of the most complete suite get 25 gigabytes of online storage.

Reviews of the latest release have been coming in over the past few weeks, and they’re generally positive. PC Magazine has given it an editor’s choice award and rated it as excellent, saying it hit its goal of being lightweight and effective at blocking malware.

But Webroot’s program is different enough that it presents new challenges to reviewers. According to PC Magazine, Webroot’s cloud-based screening method makes head-to-head comparisons with traditional signature-based antivirus software difficult, and it is a significant enough challenge that third-party testers are rethinking how they work. If you’re interested, you can read more here.

PC Mag also noted the software’s cloud-based approach that focuses on behaviors has the potential flaw of not being able to detect new malware until it gets installed and begins running.

Coffey said Webroot understands the issue and takes steps to protect users by continually logging their activity on their computers so that if malware does make it through, it is quickly identified and undone. The company also believes it has strengthened its threat detection engine that protects against unknown malware and zero-day attacks.

Webroot let me give SecureAnywhere a test drive over the past few weeks. I’ll admit up front that I don’t have the ability that some others have to test the efficacy of the anti-malware features, so this review is limited. But from the point of view of an everyday user, Webroot looks like it has been successful. The program doesn’t bog down computers like other security suites, and it isn’t intrusive for the user.

It also passes “the mom test,” at least in my family. I installed last year’s SecureAnywhere on my mother’s Windows 7 desktop about a year ago, and ever since there haven’t been any panicked phone calls about crashes or frightening messages about security flaws.

Anecdotes do not equal data, but those kinds of informal tests by users are relevant in the eyes of Webroot, which considers the best security programs to be largely invisible to users, Coffey said.

Nevertheless, Webroot didn’t stake its future on a new product to make moms happy, and from a business standpoint, SecureAnywhere really was a risk. Webroot discontinued its three previous product lines entirely when SecureAnywhere was introduced, giving up about $120 million in revenue per year, Williams said.

But within two years SecureAnywhere made up that gap and is now earning more than the three products it replaced. Its success has helped Webroot revive itself as a company, at least in Williams’s eyes.

“We’re a totally different company than we were two years ago,” he said.

“We converted our customer base, but we also have dramatically grown our customer base. We grew by 36 percent in a sector that declined by 15 to 20 percent over each of the past two years,” Williams said. “We’re one of the few companies that are growing in consumer-based security, and that means we’re taking market share from everybody.”

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