The Mac Issue

One of my first columns was about Mac vs PC. At the time, about four years ago, I wrote about how Macs had changed and weren't really Macs anymore. That they were PCs inside an apple peel. And how it was all about the software. How much has changed - and how little.

The share of Macs in the market has rocketed up. Not because they've gotten a lot better, nor because PCs have gotten worse. The prices for both are closer now and Windows 7 has fixed many of the complaints that people have had about Windows over the years. So, what's changed? What we carry in our pocket.

Now that you can't swing a dead hedgehog without hitting someone who's texting while walking down the street, it seems everyone wants an iPod, iPhone or iPad. And because Apple makes those, people want the other stuff Apple makes too. In marketing they call that the halo effect.

The other thing that's changed with Apple's market share is the threat of Mac viruses. Back in the day, the destructive little tykes that wrote viruses did it mainly out of vanity. There's not much glory in infecting twelve computers. So, they wrote viruses for PCs because almost all computers were PCs. Now that Apple's market share is heading for 10% they've become a target.

It's worth noting here the other reason why there have been less viruses written for the Mac: it's harder. When Windows first came out, Microsoft already owned the vast majority of the desktop market. Consequently, Windows had to support a large and varied software market on extremely limited hardware. They accomplished that by allowing programs to share memory and share the registry for settings. Apple didn't do this. They forced applications to live in a virtual sandbox on the computer and they weren't allowed to play with others. This made it very difficult to infect other programs at the expense of needing more expensive hardware to run multiple programs; difficult, but not impossible.

The other reason that Mac security has become a hot topic lately is the simple fact that hardly anyone is writing what would technically be called a virus anymore. These days it's all about trojans and backdoors. In fact trojans that can infect Macs have been around since 2007.

What's a trojan? The term trojan comes from its use in trojan horse. A little device the Greeks came up with to trick their way into Troy. It looks like a gift, but with a nasty surprise hidden inside.

On computers, trojans are similar. They appear to be a useful program, but contain evil code inside. One of the more common approaches is to pop up a window, when you visit a website, telling you that your computer is infected and if you just download this wee program it'll fix it for you. You guessed it, the wee program is the trojan. Don't be fooled. If you didn't initiate the installation of a program, don't install it.

One particular little nasty is making its way around the Mac world: MacDefender. It uses a trick piece of javascript on a malicious site to initiate what looks like the installation of anti-virus software, but MacDefender is the malware.

Back to Mac security. To date there has been little need to worry as a Mac owner. Apple's design approach has made it difficult to create malicious programs for the Mac and relatively easy to spot bad behaviour. This doesn't mean you should become complacent however. I guarantee that many Macs will be infected before the Apple fanboys admit that it's happening.

What to do?

If you're a Mac owner there is security software available. Right now probably the best thing you can run on your Mac is Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac . It's free for home use and while the literature uses the word virus, what they mean is malware: such as trojans. This is mostly what you have to worry about on Macs. (Mostly on PCs too.)

Sophos Anti-Virus is not drag and drop like many Mac programs. You do have to run an installer.

Once installed it scans any file you read or write. It gives you the ability to manually scan a file, in case you downloaded something from the internet and want to check it before opening it. And it has one nice feature that parents will love: you can have it send an email if it finds any malware. Install this on the kid's Mac and it'll let you know if their computer gets infected.

There are a few other Mac anti-virus programs popping up. I suspect the market will stay small for now as there is little need for anyone to panic. Macs are by default pretty secure. But if you're the careful type, well, now you have an option.

Happy Computing