The trouble with fame

News of a Mac Trojan invading Apple computers world-wide could say a lot more about the IT industry than you might think.

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By  Derek Francis Published  July 7, 2008

Gaining remote access to hackers, logging keystrokes, recording password info, taking screenshots and - to rub salt into the wound - being able to use the Mac's own built-in webcam to snap photos. This is the how the AppleScript Trojan called Asthtv05 busies itself, being much more than a nuisance to those unfortunate enough to download it.

While this isn't the first malware to specifically target Apple computers, it does highlight a crucial new development in the world of Macs. It's a high-profile case that aptly demonstrates how Macs are now increasingly becoming fair game to hackers. Are there enough people using Macs now to warrant the time spent on developing a virus or other malware? Has Apple, in its drive to dominate the world via the iPod, iTunes and the MacBook ignited the fury of hackers? Somewhere, somebody must think so.

Let's look at the key evidence behind this. Exhibit A is Microsoft, with its flagship Windows operating system, which dominates well over 90% of PCs worldwide. Apple's Mac OS X has emerged as a true alternative, and there are a number of reasons why people would choose this over Windows. Firstly, it looks good and works like a dream; from the slick DVD-loading SuperDrive to the elegant design of OS X, Macs are built to be user-friendly and chic at the same time.

Secondly, Microsoft has angered many people over the last decade. Computer programmers lament the buggy performance in Windows and Vista, while industry players loathe the software giant's anti-competitive practices (Opera is the most recent company to drag Microsoft into another legal battle). The average consumer picks up on all this and chooses to go for the lesser evil. It's like picking Firefox over Internet Explorer; some do it because of features they like. Others just want to go against the mainstream.

Another reason is that, traditionally, Macs are less of a target. You don't really need to keep a lookout for viruses quite in the same way a Windows user does. In spite of this recent attack, Mac-targeting Trojans, worms, viruses and other malware are few and far between.

Maybe this is all set to change. As mentioned, Apple is pushing more into the mainstream, so let's consider Exhibit B: the iPod and iTunes. By changing the face of the digital music market, it enjoys the success of being a technological icon, as well as pitfalls of being a high-profile brand. Raise your hands if you besmirch the iPod for its irreplaceable battery or its high price point? I can almost guarantee I'm not the only one that does. Exhibit C and D, of course, are Apple TV and the iPhone - additional examples of the company's forays into other unexplored markets. Verdict: Apple is really trying to take over the world.

The path to an Apple-dominated world of technology probably started back in 2006, when CEO Steve Jobs announced a tie-up with Intel. No longer would Macs use PowerPC processors, but instead, Intel would provide chips that could propel the development of new software and hardware on a path parallel to other technology firms.

Meanwhile, the power of the Mac had grown. PC users are looking more and more to Apple as the coolest thing in computing. Some even take the time to customise their Windows desktops with Mac OS X skins, downloading shortcut menu bars like ObjectDock. Several online articles have been devoted to this subject. Even Microsoft Vista has a resemblance to Apple's operating system, but is notoriously buggy. (Going back further, the first Windows OS was based on Apple's back in the 1980s, so this is nothing new).

Now Apple is hypnotising Windows users with its look-good functionality. The iPod's success means that many more people see Macs as a genuine alternative. They're no longer just for the creative types or fashionable. And with programs like Safari (the Mac's internet browser) becoming available on Windows, this is bound to extend the Apple tree's reach in the long-term.

But has Apple grown too quickly? If you download Safari for Windows, you will notice how awful it looks. You have to really be after a Mac look to really bother with it, because with Windows displays in the background, it just looks wrong - like Apple did a haphazard job to make the program compatible, without really making much of an effort. Alternatively, it may just be a tease, telling Windows users what they're missing on the gloriously elegant Mac computers.

If Asthtv05 has eroded Apple's aura of secure and safe computing even by just a little, it could prove to be the start of something more ominous. It's like when your home is burgled - suddenly the house doesn't feel quite the same ever again. As more high-profile viruses or Trojans find their way onto OS X, an Apple may lose its idyllic innocence.

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