The real question about Mac security

The real question about Mac security

Summary: Are Macs more secure than PCs, or not? Either way, the answer always drives Windows users nuts.


While on a quick trip this week to New York City (to see my daughter in a FringeNYC Festival musical theater production), I spent a good while cooling my heels in various coffee shops around the Village. Counting the laptops plopped on tables, I figured that more than 70 percent were Macs.

MacBook ProEven while waiting at the airport, my impression was that Macs were still evident — around 50 percent. But let's cut that number in half, since I admit to wearing Apple-colored glasses at times. Still, whatever the count, that's way more than Apple's official market share.

Maybe this observation wasn't a fluke.

According to a Wednesday, Aug. 22 ChangeWave Research news flash, Apple's position in the installed base of laptops rose a couple of points to 17.5 percent over the past few months.

Meanwhile, Chris Pirillo noted in his blog that there were a lot more Macs than usual being used at at Gnomedex Linux conference in Seattle earlier this month.

So, Macs appear to be gaining, even outside the NYC Apple stores. Much of this growth is coming from switchers.

Security is one reason often mentioned in any discussion around switching to the Mac. This is a two-sided issue: one is the perceived security of the Mac and the other is the insecurity of Windows.

In a long "Broken Windows" post on his Daring Fireball blog, John Gruber looked at the causes for Windows insecurity. He said that the user attitudes of communities could be one of the tipping points.

According to Gruber, the Mac community has zero tolerance for vulnerabilities. "Not just zero tolerance for security exploits, but zero tolerance for vulnerabilities."

The Mac community will punish vendors, developers and perhaps even individual coders who violate this sense of community, he wrote.

But the Windows community lacks, well, community.

... Many Windows users are simply resigned to the fact that their computers contain software that is not under their control. And if they’ll tolerate an annoying application that badgers them with pop-up ads, well, why not a spyware virus that logs every key you type, then sends them back to the creator?

The Mac is like a good neighborhood, where the streets are clean and the crime rate low. You don’t need bars on your windows in a good neighborhood; you don’t need anti-virus software on the Mac.

In a column this summer, I proposed a similar cultural explanation for the disparity between the infection rates between the platforms. I've always felt that Mac users like the Mac way too much to harm the platform.

At the same time, the Mac gains in the security department from a dual layer of obscurity and better technology. Since the Mac has such a small slice of the market, it falls under the notice of malware authors.

This drives PC flag-wavers nuts. Here's a bit of a long response to my column sent by a guy named Dave:

Now let's go a little deeper into the shadows you insist are not there. At? 2.94% of the market share, the effort a programmer has to code a custom virus for you just isn't cost effective. Your entire user base isn't ?even the population of 3 decent size botnets. That fact alone puts it beneath even the casual interest of most of the malware coders.

Yes, you guys really have that pathetic of a showing. Now the real reason why we hate you loud-mouth, obnoxious twits is simple: You are a blip of a minority that demands and insists that you get the respect and support the same as the massive population that you are not even a part of. You guys whine and cry more than the OS2 users.

I love this guy. Windows users are "real" computer users: they suck it up when the going gets tough and put their faces to the botnet wind. Mac users have it easy and whine quickly.

Of course, there's a continuing dispute over the perceived technological superiority. Hey, I can believe it.

However, it doesn't matter to users whether these technological or market reasons are real or not, right or wrong. By its record, the Mac has been a more secure platform and continues to be a more secure platform. And that's what matters to users.

For switchers, security boils down to productivity. The security hit with Windows takes too much time.

A Georgia-based physician who handles the IT for his practice wrote me. He said that it takes some 15 minutes a week to update maintain the Macs used in his practice.

"I wish that I could say the same for the Windows Server and Clients. This can take one to several hours per day depending on the latest security hole that has been discovered. I have gotten at least two rootkit malware programs on clients despite having a hardware firewall and running continually update [antivirus] software and two programs to detect malware."

"If I did not absolutely have to have the Windows OS to communicate for business reasons, I would be glad to give it the deep six. It consumes too many hours to maintain," he said.

'Nuff said.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Security, Windows

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  • Be Very Careful

    Ed Bott will attack you soon and tell you that you are reverse whining against the MSFT Bloatfarm.

    He'll tell you that viruses, trojans, spyware and malware are character building. Moreover, Mac users have it far too easy with a lack of driver problems, lack of hardware and app conflicts and all the other Bloatfarm character building "exercises" that strengthen Vista users.

    Ed simply hates simplicity, productivity and enjoyment. He is a true died in the wool, hairshirt computer Calvinist. If he in not struggling against some kind of near impossible Vista adversity, his day is empty.

    Users must simply adopt a different attitude; put on your XXL Vista hairshirt and enjoy it! Tell yourself that after Vista SP93 comes out, you won't like it anymore because it won't be a challenge.

    Mac simplicity and productivity is for WIMPS! Real men struggle with Vista in a titanic battle each day.

    Long live the Soviet (oops) Vista Union! Hail to Comrad Ed!
    Jeremy W
    • Simplicity, Productivity and Enjoyment

      I've used both macs and PCs and have to respond to your comment about "simplicity, productivity and enjoyment" on Macs as opposed to on Windows.

      I don't quite see where you get the idea that Windows isn't any of these things, because in my experience, it is more so than on a Mac.

      Simplicity: You need to know the basics for both Mac and Windows because you can use it properly, but once you do, it's simple on Windows. My Computer is where the files are, the Start button is a simple program launcher, Control Panel is where you make configuration, left click is for selecting and right click is for getting choices relevant to your current situation. If you want to install a program from a CD, put in the CD and run it. If you want to install a program from the internet, download it and run it. Installation takes a few seconds and you couldn't get much simpler, and your new program is ready to run.

      The key point is, if you want something on windows, it's simple to get it. Particularly so, because of the amount of software available. Buy a bit of new hardware, plug it in, and it'll work. Look for a bit of software to do <x>, you'll probably find it, and be able to run it off the bat. Once you understand the basics, you can easily find your way around the operating system. I dont know how more simple you would want. Everything pretty much "just works", with a few exceptions from the occasional poorly coded or buggy software (but the same is true on Mac, the amount of times I've seen some of my Mac friends complaining that something isn't working).


      Next, productivity: I don't know how productivity could be easier on a Windows machine. You want to get work done, it's simple - just launch up the program you want, and do with it what you want. In fact, you can be more productive due to the amount of software available, the amount of help, support and guidance available for many Windows-based programs and the fact that if you have a problem, more people will be able to help. To me, being productive is getting what you need done on a computer with minimal fuss or problem, and that's exactly what you can do with Windows.


      Enjoyment: There's plenty to enjoy, mainly having a seamless and simple experience where you can get what you want done without having to worry. And when you're not working, there's plenty of games and entertainment you can enjoy on Windows as well. Using Windows is an enjoyable experience for many - if it wasn't, more people would be seeking alternatives.


      There's many arguments that go around against both Mac and Windows, but the thing is, they're not so different. Windows isn't some evil spyware infested, virus attracting, insecure and instable operating system that keeps crashing. I know - I use it! Many peope use it and have no problems.

      Viruses and Trojans and Backdoors and Malware happening to ordinary users is mostly hype. I've been fine without antivirus or a firewall for years now. So have the people I've introduced to getting a PC and getting Windows, even though they're new to the platform. If you're really worried, install an antivirus and set it to automatically update, takes a few minutes to set up, and never worry about it again.

      Most of the problems that can occur on Windows happen to people that bring it on themselves, and trust me, this can happen as much on a Mac as it does on Windows, there are just less people using them and less "problems" designed for Mac. Take a look at the sort of viruses that are going around today. An example from my Junk mail, is a stupid email promising love and happiness if you open the attachment. Furthermore, the attachment is actually a password protected zip, but you have to put the password in to open it (which it gives in the email) and then run it. Then you might get infected. If you have a user that's actually going to do this, it doesn't matter what platform you are on. You can try to put in as many security measures as you like, having to put in a password to run programs that want more privileges on Mac or Vista and permit it, but if you have a user that's going to do that, put them on Mac or Vista or XP or most operating systems, and they're going to get infected anyway. It doesn't matter if they have to enter their admin password to get "the pleasures they desire", they will anyway. Once more people go to Mac, people like this, Mac infections will start becoming more common, because you simply cant protect a user from themselves. Because of the significantly greater amount of Windows users, and the fact that therefore, there is a greater amount of people that don't think, more of these things are made for Windows and more of them get run.

      If the roles were reversed and Mac had the majority market share, and all these users were using Mac, do you really think Mac would be able to save them, if they were determined to run something which was harmful? Unfortunately, I think not.

      And as said above, if you're really that worried, 5 or so minutes of your life to install antivirus and you're protected.

      So there you have it - for the majority of users, the Windows experience is "simplicity, productivity and enjoyment". The arguments that Windows is full of viruses and trojans are down to the user, and would apply to pretty much any platform, but Windows obviously has the focus due to its big market share.

      My Windows box is sitting here, 2 months uptime at the moment, don't think I've ever actually had a crash in 4 years. It's simply to use, I'm productive as I have all the applications and tools at my disposal I need, and I enjoy the experience, as everything just works just the way I want it to, whether I'm working or relaxing.
      • Wow

        I didn't realize it was April first already.

        Kaleld, I don't doubt for one minute that you really believe everything you wrote in
        your post. In fact, I'm positive you do. Based on everything you've said, and
        everything as I know it, there is only one possible explanation;

        You are the single most fortunate, luckiest Windows user in the entire known


        Your personal friends who use Macs, the ones you referred to in your post who are
        always "complaining that something isn't working" with their Macs, are the
        absolute diametrical opposite of you, and apparently have the worst possible luck
        in the known universe.

        My advice? Go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City while you're still on this unbelievable
        hot streak! Oh, and definitely leave your Mac friends behind!

        I don't want to argue with you, and I'm not attacking you, but you can't be serious,
        can you? If I didn't know better, I'd swear you stole your post from someone
        writing a Mac review, and just switched the names to make it work for you. Have
        you really used a Mac before? I've used them for ten years now, and in all that time
        only had one (1) application that I couldn't use on a Mac, and didn't already have a
        similar app that was as good or better. It was the software for my Garmin GPS. At
        the time, it was only available for PC's. That's it. You implied that Macs suffer from
        a lack of software availability, twice, but if you really used one, you wouldn't even
        think such a thing, let alone say it.

        The one thing that kept screaming at me as I read through your post was "This
        guy has never used a Mac before!"

        If you really have, and those are really your experiences, then go to Vegas.

        • He's not alone

          I've had the exact same experience over the years with Windows. No viruses, no trojans, no malware of any kind. No problems with hardware, no blue screens. I've also used Linux, with similar results. No Macs yet, but I'm considering it.

          The problem is, people who look for or expect problems are bound to find them. And for people who have a vested interest in the failure of Microsoft, it will always happen.

          Carl Rapson
          • For me...

            My experience with using Windows on a daily basis ended after NT, and it was
            pathetic. I wasn't looking for problems, they were just always there. This was a
            long time ago, though, so I can't say one way or the other as far as Vista is

            I do, however, hear from people everyday, literally, who are having problems with
            Windows. The funny thing is most of them have become so used to them
            happening over and over again, they already know the routines necessary to
            correct the problem, for the time being. My time is worth more than that.

            As far as Macs go, I hate to say it, because I know it sounds like a broken record,
            but in my experience, and with every Mac user I know, literally, they have no
            problems at all. I can name at least 12 friends that in the past two years have
            switched from a PC to a Mac, and every single one acts like they just found a
            secret door to a buried treasure. I'm really not kidding. I have nothing to gain or
            lose from anyones opinions in here, which is why I won't get heated. But like I
            said, in MY experience, everyone that switches has only one complaint; they wish
            they had done it sooner. Again, that is among those that I know of.

            Actually, I do have a Mac complaint. I bought a MacBook Pro back in February,
            which was the first laptop I've ever owned, and I had two complaints right away:
            The speakers are a joke. They don't sound much better than the one in my
            pushbutton phone's handset. My other complaint was the way they had the
            keyboard lighting set up. You could dim it, or turn it off on command, but it would
            only come on via a light sensor, and sensor is in the case (under a speaker grille)
            that is too close to the screen, so the light from the screen would make it a pain
            to keep the keyboard lit. That sucked. Fortunately, a friend of mine who has a
            MacBook Pro found a tiny little program that you can install that gives control
            back to me. But for that kind of money, I shouldn't have to do something so trivial.

            Other than those two things, it's been awesome. :)
          • Well, you should go to Vegas too...

            cuz you're luck must be off the charts on the good side.

            I have about 25 years of experience with Windows, since Windows 1.03 in fact. And it's always been a struggle. I can't count the number of re-installs and systems restores I have to perform over the years or the months of my life wasted in doing these.

            My last Windows debacle occurred when WGA claimed my wife's XP Pro VAIO laptop was using a pirated Windows after running not so well for about a year. It kept getting slower and slower to boot and then I intervened. I logged in with my admin management account and everything was fine for start up and shut down. So I inferred that something was hosed in her account's registry settings, data usually found in the ntuser.dat file. This is something I have seen many time before and it wasn't a virus as the machine had full firewall and antivirus running while my wife never ever browsed the internet (which was only through a hardware firewall). I created a new account for her and logged into it and then XP Pro WGA told me I was a criminal. Others have scoffed at this as untrue but I am merely reporting the facts which I don't understand or feel the need to bother to understand. My solution was too wipe the drive clean and install ubuntu Feisty Fawn. My wife learned it without any assistance, loves it, and so do I.

            My last computer purchase was a MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, it runs Windows XP Pro in a Boot Camp partition until I can move all of my apps to OS X.

            If you never had any problems with Windows, you are truly among the luckiest few, that's for sure.
          • No problems with Windows either

            No viruses, no malware, no blue screens (couple on W2K, none on XP/Vista). It Just Works.

            And when I want to run an OS with *nix underpinnings, I certainly won't go out and spend $2,000 on $1,000 worth of component, off the shelf PC circuitry, I'll simply install Linux. I really get the best of all worlds with Windows and Linux. OSX offers me nothing other than lock-in, lock-in, and more lock-in.
          • I love your parodies!!

            Thanks for the laugh!!!!
            Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
          • Carl, you live in a dream world.

            I have used Window systems since '82. Macs since '98. Granted I don't use Vista everyday, but my worklaptop has XP and I STILL have BSODs! Just last week I could not log into my laptop, got a panic crash, and the system restore DELETED ALL MY FILES IN THE MY DOCUMENTS FOLDER! Search the .net like I did and you will see HUNDREDS of people have had this problem.

            Windows just plain sucks. The worst thing that ever happened to my and my Mac was after installing an additional 4GB of Ram it stopped working after an auto-update. I think it's because Apple saw I was not using their RAM. So I removed the ram, reinstalled OSX (4 minute job), ran the update and install the new RAM. Bang - in 10 minutes my machine was fixed and running. The FASTER repair of any PC I have ever used!

            Like I said. Windows just plain sucks. Of course, the criminals that run Microsoft will never get a dime from me. I don't buy from unethical companies. Luckily when this laptop dies I get to buy a MacBook Pro to replace it!
          • Considering...

            ...your screen name, I would place you in the "vested interest" category. Is it any surprise you have such problems with Windows?

            And I may live in a dream world, but since it seems to interact with the real world just fine, I've got no complaints.

            Carl Rapson
        • Wait, don't stop counting.

          add me to that list and the 1000 users overtown at a site who've not had an exploit of anykind...8 years and counting.<br>
          Nada one. If you take the simple precautions that a world dominating OS just has to, since they attract almost 100% of the criminals and other malicious hackers, you will be as secure as with any OS. You do have to know how to secure your personal machine or your network, but both are no more trouble than with any other OS and will not cost you a penny extra.
          • We knew that, because its xuniL_z - NT

        • Not that lucky

          I've been using Microsoft OSs since one of the first DOS and never had a crash, never had a BSOD, never had a virus, spyware, malware, trojan, etc...Actually, I don't know anyone who has had virus/malware/etc...I've witnessed a BSOD. A restart solved the problem and it never, to my knowledge, happened again.

          So, actually, his story is more common than you like to admit because it breaks down your strawman argument. It frankly doesn't matter which you prefer, the fact is that many many people use Windows daily and have for years without ever having a problem (not just no major ones, no minor ones either). You'll just have to learn to cope with that fact.
          • Wake up sweetie.

            Get out of your dream world. You are not convincing anyone to buy a Windows machine.
          • Wake up? Who's sleeping? I'm awake and using my PC flawlessly

            I don't need to wake up. I'm not trying to convince anyone. I'm rebutting the comment that this one user is "the single luckiest Windows user in the universe." If that's true then there's a lot of it going around. I'm sorry if you assume it was meant to convice someone to switch. I frankly don't give a shit what platform you use. But, the FACT is that I have used MS software for 18 years, and never had a single solitary problem. This is obviously not the case for everyone. I never claimed it to be. In fact, I could go home to a problem tonight, but I doubt it seriously.

            You need to get over yourself.
          • That's quite a statement

            <i>"But, the FACT is that I have used MS software for 18 years, and never had a single solitary problem"</i>

            Really? Not one, not even one minor problem? Not even a smidge?!?

            Wow, MS has really done their job, huh. Heheheh
            Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
          • That's right, Kid, and my fiance has been using his Mac without issue also

          • C'mon let's be real here

            to say you have NEVER had an issue with any computer EVER is either disingenuous or you don't EVER turn your computer on.

            Oh, wait MAYBE you are one of the very lucky few, sorry, my bad!
            Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
          • So...

            It's an old observation, but a valid one, where'd the million plus bot-net's that are all windows pc's come from if there weren't major league problems out there with windows as a platform? And lest we forget, there was/is slammer and code-red to name some of the more "fun" windows issues.
          • Well....

            can you point to one site, right now, that has bots? Tell me one person or company struggling with slammer at this time. <br>
            Someone tries to give their honest assessment of windows and you bring up 5 year old problems. And since you can't prove whether OS X or Linux could hold up to 95% marketshare, supporting thousands of more vendors, configurations and vertical market software with their clients, even your sarcastic insults are based on the abscense of comparison. I think you are just p*ssed sweetie cause you'll never see anyone but Microsoft grapple with the problems that beset a world dominating OS. Not in your lifetime, but hey you can always dream about it and make nasty, rude, arrogant condescending comments in the meantime, as a way to vent that overwhelming frustration. <br>
            stinks being you, doesn't it.