Mac vs PC, part 2: Security

A professor I once knew offered me the following analogy regarding the various security capabilities of Macs vs. PCs: A Mac is like a beautiful house set out in the middle of the country. Its windows and doors are all kept unlocked because nobody ever comes out to visit with malicious intent. A PC, on the other hand, is like a house in the middle of the city with its doors locked with deadbolts and its windows covered with bars. The point of this analogy, explained in a bit more detail below, is that a Mac is inherently less secure, but it’s not a target, while Windows is more secure, but is getting attacked more frequently.

Everybody knows that any Windows computer is a breeding ground for all sorts of viruses and various assorted bits of harmful software, right? I mean, after all, that’s the point that all those Mac Vs. PC commercials drive home. And why would there be all those different antivirus products (McAfee, Norton, Symantec, etc…) for Windows if there wasn’t a huge problem with viruses? Well, the truth is that there is a problem with malware (the general catch-all term for any software running on a computer that you don’t want there) for Windows. The reason for this is pretty simple. There are a LOT of Windows machines in the world. Most home computers are PCs with Windows, almost all business computers—with the exception of those in the artistic businesses—run Windows. In other words, the vast majority of computers used in the world are running some version of Windows. Mac computers just don’t have that kind of market saturation. The market share just isn’t there for Macs. As of December 2009, Windows had a 92.21% share of the computer market, while Macs ran in a very distant second at 5.11% (http://arstechnica.com/microsoft/news/2010/01/windows-7-growing-faster-than-vista-overtakes-mac-os.ars).

Now imagine, if you will, the following scenario: A dastardly hacker writes a piece of “morally questionable” software to do whatever it is that he wants it to do. Now, also assume that this hacker is interested primarily in either money or notoriety, which is usually what these writers are going for. Given these assumptions, what would you rather spend your time working on: something that can affect over 90% of the current market, or something that can hit only 5%? The obvious answer is that you are going to concentrate on writing a virus for the operating system that offers the biggest return on your time investment.

Windows has been the dominant operating system, and therefore the biggest target, for quite a few years now.  The engineers and programmers at Microsoft are not unaware of this problem, and so vast amounts of manpower have been dedicated to making Windows a more secure operating system. If your house keeps getting broken into, you’re going to invest in better security, right? And this is just what Microsoft did (and is doing). There are weekly security related patches released for Windows.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Macs. Since a Mac isn’t a target, the incentive just isn’t there to spend countless man-hours finding and fixing security holes. It’s a bit of a “head-in-the-sand” approach, but by taking this approach Apple can use their ads to pound on Microsoft for their “lack of security”, while sweeping their own problems under the rug. Apple’s market share is continually increasing, however, so Apple is going to have to start thinking seriously about security.

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