The real question about Mac security

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 Pro
Even 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.