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Why Worms Shun Apple's OSX

Ilya van Sprundel writes: In this article about the Mac Mini (see BW, 2/14/05, "And For Steve Jobs's Next Trick...") you say, "The Mac does have inherent security advantages, and it is much less prone to the sort of mysterious glitches that often make Windows a challenge."

I was wondering what "inherent security advantages" OS X has and why it is "much less prone to the sort of mysterious glitches." The only reason I can think of is that the hackers haven't turned on OS X yet.

There is endless debate among security experts about whether the paucity of successful assaults on Apple's (AAPL) OS X is attributable to better security or attackers' lack of interest in an operating system whose share of the market is in single digits. I think it's some of both.

MONEY OVER GLORY. OS X offers inherently better security for several reasons. The most important is that it was designed with relatively little concern for compatibility with earlier versions, while Windows is full of compromises so that it works with older and less secure operating systems.

Microsoft's (MSFT) concern with compatibility, which largely reflects the demands of corporate customers, has resulted in old flaws being carried forward. With last year's Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, the software giant finally decided that security trumped compatibility, and Windows' security was improved significantly. But many problems remain and will persist at least until Vista, the next version of Windows, is introduced late next year.

Still, all operating systems have vulnerabilities, including OS X. Like Microsoft, Apple issues a monthly set of security patches to plug the holes. The big difference is that actual exploits of Mac vulnerabilities have been extremely rare, and that suggests a lack of interest by attackers. A few years ago, OS X probably would have come under attack just for the challenge of it. But all the evidence suggests that these days, the ablest writers of viruses, spyware, and worms, are motivated more by profit than glory, and Windows, with 90%-plus of the market, is where the money is.

ASSORTED JUNK. The issue of glitches is even more complicated. "Windows sclerosis" has been a well-known phenomenon with all versions of the operating system. Over months and years, Windows tends to get crankier and crankier, and performance degrades. I have not seen similar problems with OS X.

I think the most important cause of Windows sclerosis is the odd assortment of system specifications, program preferences, and assorted other instructions called the Windows Registry. With time, the Registry tends to accumulate the computer equivalent of crumbs, dust bunnies, and assorted junk. One important function of the Registry is to control what programs and processes are loaded at startup, and this list always seems to grow over time. The result: Slower boot times, weaker performance because of the number of programs running in memory, and an increasing probability that these programs will either crash or interfere with each other.

The Registry was supposed to disappear in Vista or at least become far less important. Unfortunately, Microsoft ran into serious problems in developing the alternative, and the Registry will be around for the indefinite future.


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