Mac Threats: Is Symantec Crying Wolf?

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-03-23

Mac Threats: Is Symantec Crying Wolf?

In a perfect would, people might pay for security software based on the number of attacks prevented and the severity of those threats. The bigger the threat, the harder the software works and the more it protects, the more you pay. Seems fair enough.

In the case of Mac OS X, if you paid for what you got, the price for security software would be zero. The price would thus equal the number of virus and malware threats that target Apples Unix-based operating system.

So why do Mac users pay so much—often as much at $70 for anti-virus alone and as much as $150 for a security "suite." Using the same math, Windows anti-virus software would probably cost $1,000 a desktop, yet its easy to find software for as little as $20 in the stores.

Mac OS X users pay significantly more for protection than Windows users, protection so far they have needed only in theory or "just in case" a big new threat appears. People are getting wise to this. So is it any wonder that Symantec, in the eternal search for the next dollar, is out with a report that seems to predict dire consequences for future Mac users? Its like a teacher once told me, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Especially when you dont have any steak."

I suppose its to the anti-virus industrys credit that some bored anti-virus developer hasnt launched an OS X threat merely to justify his or her continued employment. Still, with no threats, its not like the software really requires much dev time.

It was not my plan to return to Macintosh security so soon, having just written about it last week.

Click here to read David Courseys column "Mac OS X: Virus-Free—For Now."

But my friend and co-worker Ryan Naraine wrote a story this week in which Symantec talks about the growing threat viruses and malware pose to Mac OS X users, mentioned earlier. This claim is based on an internal assessment conducted for the companys "Security Threat Report," issued twice yearly.

Ryans story quotes the company as predicting that with the "introduction and popularity of OS X … Apple has become a target for new attacks and vulnerabilities."

Click here to read "Mac OS X Will Become a Target, Symantec Warns."

Indeed, a Morgan Stanley report out this week predicts Apple could nearly double its share of the worldwide PC sales this year, thanks to iPod users buying a Mac as well. Going from 3 percent to 5 percent will be dramatic for Apple, but hardly noticeable in the broad marketplace. Given OS Xs small global installed base, even this projected doubling of sales may not be enough to attract too much unwanted attention.

"Contrary to popular belief," the Symantec Threat Report continues, "the Macintosh operating system has not always been a safe haven from malicious code. Out of the public eye for some time, it is now clear that the Mac OS is increasingly becoming a target for the malicious activity that is more commonly associated with Microsoft and various Unix-based operating systems."

Next Page: Threats will grow.

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Having recently spoken to Symantecs Mac product manager, I got a sense that the threat to Mac OS X is likely to grow over time, but not into something we should stay up nights worrying about. But this Symantec Threat Report sounds like the Mac has never been secure and is only going to get worse over time. The comparison to Microsoft sounds downright ominous. Ryans story includes more quotes from the report that are equally frightening or more so.

Is it any surprise that Symantec would beat the drums of fear as loudly as possible? This is, after all, a company that has for years persuaded Mac users to pay $70 for software "necessary" to protect their computers against nonexistent threats.

This makes me wonder whether the real threat that concerns Symantec isnt from Mac OS X viruses and malware. Rather, its customers noticing that theyve paid a lot of money for Norton anti-virus software that they didnt really need.

For more insights from David Coursey, check out his Weblog.

How can Symantec keep those customers in line and writing checks? By scaring the living daylights out of them, thats how. They even invoke the "M" word as a warning of what could be in store!

Its prudent to protect yourself. But what you pay for the protection ought to have some relationship to the threat.

While my "value pricing" concept will never fly, there really should be some relationship between what we pay and the protection we get. Compared with what Windows users pay, $70 is more protection than any Mac requires. Yet thats what Symantec and some competitors charge.

Mac users deserve a break.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. A full bio and contact information may be found on his Web site,

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