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Security That Won't Slow Down Your PC


Symantec is scrambling to get the bloat out of Norton software—and stop the slide in market share

In 2006, Rowan Trollope, a top executive at Symantec (SYMC), declared war on his own engineers. The company's Norton computer-security software was getting so overloaded with features that his best friends told him they turn off the software rather than deal with the problems it causes. "I realized then we were pigs, taking up way too many PC resources," says Trollope, senior vice-president for consumer products.

Within weeks, half the team's managers were gone. Then Trollope embarked on a plan to shake up Symantec and change the way people think about protecting their computers from viruses and other assaults. His goal? To make sure Norton software not only lost its bloat but also sped up the performance of PCs. It's the first step in a five-year plan to make Symantec software easier to use. "It was pretty obvious we needed a new game plan," Trollope says.

Many computer users would agree. While security software protects computers, it's also a primary reason PCs have become such headaches. Firewalls block you from watching videos on the Net. Pop-up windows interrupt regularly to ask permission for mundane tasks. And virus scans slow your computer to a crawl.

No company has more on the line in this market than Symantec. Norton is the company's most important product, accounting for 30% of its $5.9 billion in revenue last year. And though Norton is the leading security software, it has been losing market share. Many customers have found they can download simpler security software free off the Web from such rivals as Japan's Trend Micro (TMICY). "A lot of people notice their PC suddenly is faster after that Norton trial subscription expires," says Richard Doherty, research director at consultant Envisioneering Group.

Symantec CEO John Thompson tapped Trollope to overhaul Norton in 2006. Trollope, who turns 36 on Aug. 16, has a reputation as a fixer. He started in customer service at Symantec at 18 and soon moved to bigger roles. A mountain climber and motorcycle racer, he seems to relish high-risk situations.

He certainly faces one now. Sitting with 14 department heads in late July, he argues about which bells and whistles must be jettisoned to make the Aug. 26 shipping deadline for Norton 2009. His team has hit a number of ambitious goals. But in recent days, rival Kaspersky Lab has released a product that's faster than Norton at virus scanning. "I will not ship until we are the fastest security-suite product in the world," says Trollope.

BASH AND MR. CLEAN

He's betting two innovations will help him hit the goal. One is a technology, dubbed Mr. Clean, that makes virus scans more efficient. Instead of checking every photo and document on your computer, Mr. Clean will skip over any files associated with an application it judges to be "good." Bash, the other technology, uses a similar approach. Instead of checking each application against more than 500,000 viruses, it will zip through scans by looking only for "virus-like" behavior. Together, the two could cut scan times by more than 90%.

As the deadline nears, Trollope says Symantec looks likely to reach its goal of having the swiftest security scans. The difference with rival products may be measured in seconds. But it's vital, he says, to winning back computer users who think security software is a big hassle. "We have to fix that," he says.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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