With the launch of Windows 7, Apple starts playing catch-up. When the PC was created by IBM, Apple, and even Commodore, there was a subtle and significant change with regard to how security was handled. Previously, while there were generally third-party security offerings, the primary security role was carried by the operating system vendor, which, in most cases, was also the primary hardware vendor. But none of the desktop vendors seemed to think they needed to focus on this area because security got in the way of the user experience, and being difficult to use was the sure-fire way to become obsolete.
Commodore (and Atari) both expired, and as we exited the '90s, Apple was too focused on survival to care. Wt the same time, Windows was becoming a target for attacks that went beyond just doing damage and being very limited in scale to attacks focused on stealing information and identities. This decade, we are getting viruses like Conficker, which have the potential to do global damage and still target Windows -- but we are still short of actually having one of these catastrophic events. This is largely because the security ecosystem surrounding Windows has generally proved adequate to the task. However, when comparing the Mac to Windows, generally, you leave out the massive security ecosystem that surrounds Windows and simply focus on the OS; up until Windows 7, the OS fell short. Windows 7 and Microsoft's Change Along with Windows 7 will come a comprehensive security solution sourced from Microsoft for the first time since the birth of the PC. Most of this solution will be part of its Windows experience -- and it will come for free -- and it changes dramatically how we compare the two platforms. Once the OS vendor takes on the broad responsibility for security, then this must be factored in when we compare the two offerings. The threat will remain higher for Windows in terms of the amount of malware that targets it, but this change should make Apple the easier target. And with an increasing number of high-profile companies like Cisco using Macs, they will become a likely target, as well. Hardware Advantages One thing that seems to be consistently forgotten is how much more secure Windows hardware already is in many shops. Biometric readers and/or smart card readers are very common on Windows hardware, while they're virtually nonexistent on Macs. And there is no Apple equivalent of a TPM to handle trusted links or hardware-based encryption. Virtualization Problem There is one feature with Windows 7 that I worry about, and that is this new built-in Virtual Machine that business versions will get. Its intent is to enable faster migrations, but it comes with a built-in security exposure. In fact, I haven't seen a lot of discussion on why desktop virtualization may be a bad idea when it comes to security.
Now, under emulation you have one operating system; security software can run on that OS natively and protect the application running in emulation mode. The problem is not all programs will run this way, which is why this virtualization option was built into Windows 7.
However, with emulation you are basically running another operating system instance, and this instance isn't compatible (which is why you are running it in emulation in the first place) with the primary OS. So how is it being protected? As we know, antimalware products have to be written for the OS on which they run. So an antivirus product written for Windows 7 or Vista probably won't run on Windows XP, if you can even get it to load twice. That suggests you will need to run two antimalware solutions -- one for the Windows 7 environment, and one for the Windows XP instance running on the Virtual Machine. These two products probably not only won't talk to each other, they may view the behavior of the other product as an attack or kick off scans at the same time -- bringing the system to its knees, or possibly even overwriting each other's files. Finally, and malware products aside, there is something inherently risky with regard to putting things that are probably no longer patched or tightly supported on desktop hardware. These applications would seem to be obvious targets for attack and, because they aren't touched at all, the resultant information flow to the attacker could go unnoticed for years.
In other words, if I can trick a user or an IT technician to install my malware into those VMs, I probable have a data mine that I can rely on for years. This makes me nervous enough to suggest that you don't deploy the virtualization option unless the related exposure is fully vetted. Will Windows 7 Be More Secure Than Snow Leopard? It will because it has to be. With the launch of Windows 7, Macs will be targeted much more often, and Apple's policy of concealing the related exposures has the potential to result in a major news story. But it's our job to protect users and make sure all of this wonderful stuff is working safely. With Windows 7, our job generally gets easier -- and the Mac guys will have to sweat, for once.
-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.