Minority Report: Macs threatened by virus terror?

Not quite

Not quite

Is Apple pushing antivirus software? Seb Janacek examines the source of the recommendation. In short: don't panic.

Apple touts the Mac's invulnerability to viruses as one of the key unique selling points over the PC. In one of the very first 'Get a Mac' ads, the PC struggles with one of the 114,000 viruses out in the wild for the platform. Not so the Mac.

However, in an apparently unprecedented move, Apple this week announced it is recommending antivirus programs for the Mac.

The company's website said: "Apple encourages the widespread use of multiple antivirus utilities so that virus programmers have more than one application to circumvent, thus making the whole virus writing process more difficult."

There are a number of possible reasons why Apple released this message.

Firstly, as the Mac continues its market share renaissance we're seeing a rise in the amount of malware targeting the system.

Secondly, it could be Apple covering its back. The number of viruses that can affect OS X remains small and most, if not all of these, are proof of concept programs that usually require a user with an admin account to authorise installation of code and have little or no payload. But the company could be reacting to the growing number of website-based exploits that can harm Macs.

Thirdly, it might represent advice to recent Windows switchers who may not believe in the virus-free utopia that Apple claims Mac is and need a bit of reassurance. Besides, even if the virus risk for Macs is low a Mac can still pass on Windows malware in email to Windows users.

Or fourthly, it might just be an update to an old web page to reflect the availability of Mac antivirus programs - two of which are sold at the Apple Store (one from Symantec and one from Intego).

Guess what? It looks like it may well be reason four. Panic over.

The Apple Knowledge Base article which makes the antivirus recommendation has the reference ID HT2550 - but it refers to an older page ID of 4454. That page no longer appears in the Apple Support site archive but it can be accessed through the Wayback Machine, an archive of 85 million web pages reaching back to 1996.

Knowledge Base document 4454 is entitled: "Mac OS: Antivirus Utilities". Exactly the same as the current HT220 page. The page has an almost identical description to the one above (see the page here).

It may be that a routine document management update to the Apple web page, possibly to reflect new version numbers for antivirus products, may have led to widespread concern about a new virus threat for the Mac.

Realistically, how worried should Mac users be about virus threats? Not particularly at the moment, but a little common sense is still needed when it comes to ensuring your Mac is safe - such as installing antivirus software and not opening email attachments from unknown sources.

The original .Mac suite of online programs used to provide an antivirus program but this was dropped in 2005, probably because it was superfluous and wasn't in line with Apple's marketing that the Mac is so virus-free.

A little more humility from some segments of the Mac community will also go a long way in ensuring Macs stay free from infection.

As Sophos product manager Phil Wood commented in a 2005 edition of this column: "A bit of vigilance is required - Mac users don't live in an unassailable tower."