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How Is the Mobile-Security Business Doing? Don't Ask

Photographer: Patrick Strattner

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Photographer: Patrick Strattner

Most personal computers have some sort of antivirus software installed on them. That's not even remotely true for mobile devices.

While as much as 70 percent of PCs in use around the world have security tools installed on them, that's the case for just 5 percent of smartphones and tablets, according to Charles Kolodgy, an analyst at market researcher IDC.

"Users don't believe there is much of a threat to these devices," he said. "There has yet to be -- and probably never will be -- a massive worm, virus or Trojan."

Digital-security companies aren't exactly eager to highlight this divide. When asked for specifics about mobile usage, some companies obscured or inflated their numbers.

Of course, these same companies have used similar tactics in their main PC businesses. Companies such as Symantec and Intel's McAfee bundle their programs with PCs, as users who have been bombarded with warning messages will know. That can help attract new subscribers, but it has the added benefit of allowing companies to claim higher install rates even when many of those PCs aren't actually using the software. Even if you don't want antivirus software, odds are that you're going to get it, and you're going to like it -- or else.

Some makers of mobile-security software have similar deals in place with handset manufacturers and mobile-network operators that bundle the programs with their phones. Otherwise, users need to go to an app store on their own and download it. As you can probably guess, not many people do.

Here's what some of the biggest security companies said when I asked for mobile stats:

  • Symantec and Trend Micro declined to provide figures.

  • NQ Mobile, a Chinese company, said it has 372 million registered user accounts, which includes partnerships. Only a third -- 122 million -- are active monthly users. NQ Mobile's products work in the background and continue to provide protection for users even if they are no longer considered active, which is why both numbers are given, said spokesman Kim Titus.

  • McAfee said it "has secured more than 150 million handsets with its mobile security solutions." That also includes partnerships. For a measure of how often consumers independently request the software, McAfee's mobile app has been downloaded more than 4 million times from Google Play, the company said. One reason why the higher number is used is companies often don't get their mobile security software from app stores, and thus their usage isn't reflected in the lower figure, McAfee said.

  • AVG, based in Amsterdam, said it has 44 million active mobile users.

  • Lookout Security, based in San Francisco, said it has 45 million users. The figure only includes people who have gone through Lookout's registration process, the company said.

  • Kaspersky Lab, a Russian company, said its mobile app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

Considering there are 4.6 billion mobile phones on the planet, the number of people actually using the typically free security apps is "minuscule," said Lawrence Pingree, an analyst at research firm Gartner.

Some companies may have to come up with a new form of measurement.

This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.

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