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Ask Max: Viruses and the Intel Mac

Asked on 05/26/2006:

One of the big "draws" for buying a Mac over a PC, has always been the fact that I did not have to worry about getting viruses, since they are virtually unknown in "Mac-world". Now that we are switching to the new system, does that mean that it will be easier for people to program viruses into our secure world?


The answer to your question is not going to be just a "yes, so we're in trouble" or "no, we're still safe." Most things that make the Mac a safe system are going to be unchanged by the Intel switch. For one, Mac OS X was engineered with safety in mind. By leaving out the base of Mac OS 9 in creating OS X, Apple avoided the trouble Microsoft has had with Windows. When most of the operating systems were written, computing was much safer. Computers then didn't connect to one another as much, and if you wanted to damage someone's computer you had to break into their house. It's hard to take something that was written from a trusting perspective and then make it secure afterwards. So Mac OS X was a clean start at the right time. The second safety of the Mac is in its market share. Macs still only account for around 5% of the world's computers. Most virus writers use infected computers to spread to new computers exponentially. So trying to go after Macs would be difficult and slow because of the small numbers of vulnerable computers. The last built-in protection for Mac users is with the OS itself. Many viruses are sent as attachments in emails and require users to open those attachments. They are mostly .exe files or some other executable that requires Windows to run. Macs will not run .exe files so the pure difference in operating systems is a safety tool. Alas, we come to the exception to our uninterrupted Mac safety. The most difficult aspect of protecting a computer is not knowing what the next attack will be. PowerPC processors do work in a completely different way than Intel processors and that has always been a good difference as far as the viruses go. However, someday we could see a virus or worm that needs only an Intel chip and RAM to wreak havoc. And that day we all will suffer.

However, Mac users lost only one of our four Mac protections, but we have also gained more benefits than we have lost from this Intel switch. For now we are still safe.

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