Three little bugs and a hacker do not a rotten Apple make
Most PC users switch to Macs because of virtues that translate into more value - less downtime from viruses and hackers, lower cost of ownership due to fewer mechanical and software bugs and, of course, higher resale value. Slowly, these virtues have worked their magic on the PC faithful to the point that more than 60 per cent of my e-mail is from Mac users who have recently adopted the platform and are able to work without any trouble.
At least that was the scenario until a few weeks ago when the first Mac OS X virus was discovered, after which a second one reared its ugly head and then a third. As a final blow, a hacker using a little-known OS X vulnerability hacked into a Mac in less than 30 minutes during a contest which touted that such a thing was impossible.
The international technology press was aghast. In the flurry of media attention that followed, I read headlines such as 'Mac OS X doomed!' and 'Macs safe no more'. I actually looked under my desk to see if there was any hiding place, just in case the situation got worse. Fortunately, it did not. And after an hour of research I discovered that this maelstrom was, in fact, a good thing.
This, if my maths is accurate, is my 350th column for this newspaper. Those of you who have been reading my column since the early days will remember how happy I was to get my first real virus. I had three antivirus applications which I had to review and, when that first virus appeared, they all recognised it but I could only use one to erase it and repair the damaged files. It took another few years for two more viruses to show up and then I was finally able to test the other applications.
So why are these invasions such a good thing? First, since we now have a Mac OS X virus, there will no longer be any programmers seeking to create the first one (that was their primary motivation). Second, antivirus software developers, who till now have not been selling many copies of their products, will get a boost in sales. They will continue to make Mac antivirus software so that if we ever actually do need such applications, they will be there. And third, since I know how to get samples of these viruses, I can test the software now and do not need to wait for years.
If my tone implies that the security news was a non-event, you have read me correctly. The first two viruses were essentially a proof of concept and not widely distributed. Thousands of Mac aficionados actually downloaded them on purpose so they could be part of the event and have their own copy. It was posted as a file claiming to contain a photo of some secret, yet-to-be-released Mac product.
It looked like a photo but was an application that could have been (but was not) programmed to cause file damage. The vulnerability that it exploited was that Mac users pretty much download and run anything they want. This is not really wise, but to do any significant damage, the malware application has to access the root level of a machine as an administrator. So if you are opening a file from an unknown source and it asks you for a password, press cancel and drag it to the trash.
The third virus and the hacker who gained access to the test Mac from the internet (which did not have normal firewall protection, I might add) exposed vulnerabilities that were not known before the attacks. The first two have already been fixed by the latest security release and the other two should be fixed by the time you read this. Nonetheless, these viruses caused no file damage.
When you consider that there are more than 150,000 security vulnerabilities in the Windows platform and less than 100 on the Mac platform, there is little reason for worry. Do not open unknown packages from strangers and make sure you download the latest security updates - and you will be safe.
I came across an article from NetworkWorld.com (www.networkworld.com/best/2006/ 022706bestbreaker-schwartau.html) that evaluated the total cost of ownership of the different operating systems. The Mac, when compared to Windows and Linux systems, was once again the winner, with roughly half the costs associated with purchase, maintenance, downtime, licensing and other operating expenses.
So if you enjoyed the peace, economy and security that came from converting to a Mac from a PC, nothing much has changed. And if you continue to be comfortable with your Mac, you will discover its other virtues. These are things that Mac users have known for many years, and they inspire confidence and creativity through usability and empowerment.
'Thousands of Mac aficionados downloaded the viruses just to be part of the milestone'