Anti-virus software is dead said Brian Dye, a senior executive at one of the world’s premier security companies, Symantec, who made this famous pronouncement during an oft-quoted Wall Street Journal interview in 2014. The comments made by Dye (now of Intel Security) were unexpected and perhaps slightly out of context but it was still bracing for an executive at a giant of security to even hint at the idea that the anti-virus protection that enriched his company might now be yesterday’s technology.
And yet, behold, the anti-virus software industry Dye spoke of still goes form strength to strength with a small clutch of specialist firms based in Eastern Europe now among its most successful global stars. Why Eastern Europe? That is a mystery and probably has something to do with the ability of former Soviet nations – Russia (Kaspersky Lab), the Czech Republic (Avast and AVG), Slovakia (ESET) and Romania (BitDefender)- to turn out first-class software engineers or simply a long-term mentality that has turned out to be better suited to the challenges of the security industry than the US model of following the money. It seems like a hundred other US startups are happy to declare anti-virus dead too although what they replace it with sounds to cynics like a speculative attempt to reinvent the same thing in new clothes.
To this day, only one of the Eastern European brands is not privately owned, AVG, which went public in 2012 and might be regretting that decision.
One name that typifies this long-term outlook on this industry is ESET. Started unofficially in late 1980’s Communist Czechoslovakia when private enterprise was still illegal, the firm finally got its official start in 1992 after that system’s demise. From a handful of programmers in what in early 1993 became the new capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, the company has quietly grown into one of Europe’s largest software security firms with almost 1,100 employees (behind only Kaspersky Lab). Unflashy, engineering-focused and with the trick of still feeling like a small company, doubtless its six core founders could have sold out many times but have, mysteriously, decided not to.
The UK has no security firm that compares with ESET whose headquarters sit in an unassuming tower block near the banks of the Danube in one of the Europe’s smallest capital cities, with barely 500,000 inhabitants, about the size of Edinburgh. Could a UK city of this size create a company of nearly 1,000 or more souls making complex software products? Despite 300 years of Capitalism to Slovakia’s less than 30, the evidence suggests not.
Next: the changed face of anti-virus