Mac Viruses By The Numbers - Word Macro: 553, Classic Mac: 26, OS X: Zero

S o, another week, another Windows virus. Ho-hum.

Computer viruses--Windows-based computer viruses, for the most part--have been around for a long time now, but itis really only since the explosion of the Internet (the modern, commercialized Internet, that is) that theyive caught the public eye, and itis only within the past 2-3 years (since the first "rock star" viruses, Melissa, AnnaKournikova and ILOVEYOU) that the media has made a fuss over it.

My, how times have changed. Today, nary a week goes by without headlines screaming about the latest Critical Security Flaw or Yet Another Doomsday Virus swarming the planet. Though Linux and even OS X have been known to have their own occasional security bugaboos, the vast majority of these warnings/threats have come straight out of Redmond (or, more to the point, straight out of sources that Big Redmond would prefer keep their mouths shut).

The past couple of weeks has brought the whole Virus Scare to a near-boiling point: the one-two punches of Blaster and SoBig seem to have FINALLY forced a few IT types to start questioning the whole Microsoft Is God And There Is No God Before Microsoft mantra. Some of the über geek types have started to look into alternate platforms and possibilities (this is particularly impressive since many of them didnit seem to be aware that there WERE any alternatives). Over at the Baltimore Sun, David Zeiler has written two columns exploring the long-standing debate over exactly why Macs are so seemingly immune to the numerous cyber-nasties flying the operating system inherently harder to crack, or is it simply due to there being so many more Windows users out there than Mac users, or "Security Through Obscurity," as the saying goes?

Every time a new Windows virus hits the news (and the PCs), Mac users smugly go about their business and crow about how thereis "hardly any" viruses for the Mac as opposed to the "thousands" of Windows-based viruses...but are often at a loss to pinpoint the exact evidence to support their claims.  Supposedly, "everyone knows" that Macs have fewer viruses, but just how few has always been a bit of a mystery. In light of this, I decided to run a quick check on the exact numbers involved.

My source? Network Associates (NA), sellers of the McAfee and Virex antivirus products, and one of the leading names in computer virus/anti-virus/security software alongside Symantec and the oft-quoted Sophos PLC.

I kept my search fairly simple--this is just idle curiosity, not a paid research project, after all--but as logical as I could:

1. I went to NAis Virus Information Library

2. According to this site, "More than 71,000 virus threats exist today. The McAfee AVERT Virus Information Library has detailed information on where viruses come from, how they infect your system, and how to remove them."

OK, fair enough. Iim not going to look up all 71,000, but thatis pretty specific...Iill take their word for it.

3. Next, I ran an advanced search using simply "Macintosh" as my criteria.

This kicked back a total of 612 virus listings.

4. Next, I subtracted out a couple dozen "Hoaxes"...hoaxes are not viruses, these are exactly what the name implies--phantom "chain-mail" style myths which perpetually circle the globe like the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew, never settling down due to shmoes who keep forwarding them to their family & friends (with the best of intentions and the most annoying of results). Hoaxes are basically unintentional spam mail--annoying but not really dangerous, and thereis so much actual spam out there nowadays that theyive pretty much been buried by it. This brings the total down to 580.

5. I also deleted one which got listed only because the description stated that the virus does NOT affect Macintosh systems...the Boolean search threw it into the mix. Total: 579.

Before we go any further, note that weire already down to less than 1% of the total...even though Macs make up about 5% of the total INSTALLED BASE of computers worldwide (this is how many are IN USE, NOT how many are being sold each quarter/year, which is what "market share" means), depending on your source.

6. This is where things start to get very interesting. You see, out of those 579 total viruses which affect some versions of the Mac operating system, youill notice that the vast majority of their names start with a WM/ or XM/. I checked these out, and sure enough, this means that theyire a Macro virus which runs exclusively on some versions of--you guessed it--Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel (there are a few Word/Excel Macro viruses which donit have WM/ or XM/ in their names as well). In fact, over 95% of these so-called "Mac" viruses are actually directly made possible by Microsoft software. If you take these out of the equation, which seems reasonable to me since there are solid alternatives on the Mac to Word and Excel, just as there are alternatives to Windows itself, youire left with the following number of viruses that affect the Mac and canit be blamed on Microsoft in any way, shape or form: 26.

Yes, that’s right: 26 out of a total of over 71,000.

However, Iive left out one of the most important factors here: All 26 of these, along with the other 553 Word/Excel Macro viruses, were designed for the OLDER versions of the Mac OS (and the  older versions of Word/Excel, to be fair).  None of this has anything to do with Mac OS X, which is the relevant system to look at.

If you remove the viruses which donit affect OS X, you know what youire left with--at least, as of this writing, and to the best of my knowledge?

Zero. None. Zip. Zilch.

A few final notes:

--Yes, Apple has had the occasional security issue update for OS X, but a security issue isnit the same thing as a virus--itis a potential, theoretical threat. Besides, any time Apple has released a security update, itis been a quick, quiet, simple install with no muss, no fuss, and no worsening of the original problem (again, to my knowledge).

--Yes, it can also be argued that just as the majority of Mac viruses canit be counted against OS X, so too the majority of Windows viruses may very well not affect Windows XP. To this I have two responses: 1) if you feel like digging into each and every one of those 70,974 virus descriptions to see which versions of Windows they do or donit affect, be my guest, because I donit have THAT much free time; and 2) even assuming that 90% of them donit affect XP, that would still leave a ratio of 7,100 to 0...and 7,100 is still infinitely more than none.

--Getting back to the original question of why there are so few viruses for the Mac, my response is simple: Does it really matter? Letis assume that the naysayers are correct, that the only reason is because "no one bothers" to crack into the Mac OS. Even if this is the case (which I doubt)...SO WHAT? If I live in a neighborhood with an extremely low crime rate, I really donit care WHY the burglars stay away. Maybe I have good locks on my doors. Maybe they donit like the stuff in my house. Bottom line, Ill still sleep better at night.

--Finally, yes, thereis always the possibility of a nasty OS X virus someday--thatis why Apple includes Virex with their .Mac accounts, and thatis why the company issues the occasional security update. OS X is not 100% immune to nasty problems (as anyone who lost their hard drive during the iTunes 2 debacle can tell you). No operating system is.

Also, the argument keeps being made by some anti-Mac partizans that "if Macs had 90% of the market, theyid have just as many virus problems as Windows does," as if this justifies Microsoftis sloppy coding. Well, you know what? Maybe thatis true; I doubt it, but perhaps it is. The day that Apple has a 90% market share and is plagued with viruses, Iill be more than happy to admit that I was wrong.

Somehow, I donit see either of those things happening anytime soon, but I can wait if you can.