Microsoft Woes

Microsoft’s (MSFT, info) email attachments policy is a bit like high school sex education classes–both preach the best way to prevent any trouble is to simply abstain.

That approach has proven less than successful in preventing teen pregnancy, but Microsoft is hoping teen sexuality and email viruses have little to nothing in common. These hopes stem from the company’s newest attempt at remedying security flaws in its Outlook email program.

Following extensive damage caused by the infamous “Melissa” and “I Love You” viruses, Microsoft has announced that its new Outlook email software included with Office, due out later this spring–will prohibit 300 types of file attachments.

An array of file types including program execution files, batch files, Windows help files, Java, and Visual Basic scripting files will all be blocked, along with photo CD images, screensavers, and HTML application files.

Microsoft says the new security feature is an attempt to protect its customers from possibly harmful viruses.

“The decision to add the security update was prompted by the spate of viruses in the last few years,” says Tom Bailey, lead product manager for Microsoft Office. “With all the damage that was done worldwide to organizations and individuals, we felt we needed to do our part to stop the spreading of these viruses.”

Some experts see the move as a quick fix though, lacking long-term applications.

“This is a stop-gap measure and Microsoft is claiming this is best for the user, but it indicates they have some weakness where they need to address the problem at more of a system or built-in antivirus level.”

Whether delivered via attachments or other means, viruses are of major concern to individual email users and companies alike. Last year, computer viruses cost 50,000 of the largest U.S. firms $466 billion–a mere 18 percent of the global damage caused by viruses, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Household users were also hit hard, as $651 million of virus-related damage was caused in 2015 according to the research firm eMarketer. As many as 1 in 200 emails contains a virus, says MessageLabs, a virus watchdog.

Considering those numbers, Erbschloe says, Microsoft’s approach to security issues has been disappointing.

“If you’re going to tie the browser to the operating system to essentially create Web appliances then you need to address security issues,” Erbschloe says. “The way they [Microsoft] developed their desktop in isolation it’s a major disappointment from a company that claims to be the best. They build their programs as if we don’t live in a wired world.”

Because of customization difficulties and other security issues, Erbschloe expects some users may stray from Outlook and opt for other email programs like Qualcomm’s (QCOM, info) Eudora.

“They [Microsoft] could lose some market share in the short term, most likely to Eudora,” Erbschloe says. “I’m not an anti-Microsoft guy, but when you see a product with so many weaknesses you try to find an alternative. IT people have enough to do without having to go fix email messes all the time.”

Microsoft does not fear or foresee a loss in market share to programs like Eudora, Bailey says.

Those most likely to feel the impact of the attachment limits include tech support firms, software developers, and email marketing companies. While the feature that limits the attachments can be disabled, the process is difficult. But, the vast majority of Outlook customers have no need for the attachments being banned, Bailey says.

“We haven’t found that it’s had a real negative impact on consumer customers,” Bailey says. “Things like JPEGs and hyperlinks are not on the restricted list, so we see the security benefits far outweighing any possible troubles.”