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Kenneth Van Wyk: With Gatekeeper, is Apple Big Brother or a practitioner of safer computing?

Warning: Many readers will not agree with this column, but that's because they are far more technically inclined than the average user.

By Kenneth van Wyk
February 23, 2012 08:30 AM ET

Computerworld - I'm just going to come right out and say it: Mac and iPhone users are safer than Windows and Android users. There it is.

I can sense a tsunami of comments flooding in like never before, so allow me to explain what I mean.

There is vastly less malware (viruses, worms, botnets, etc.) on OS X and iOS than there is on Windows and, more recently, Android. We all acknowledge this. But many of you are saying that that doesn't mean that Apple's operating systems are more secure than Windows or Android. True. I didn't say they're more secure; I said they're safer.

What else do you have to knock down that statement? Ah, yes, there's less malware on OS X than on Windows because there are fewer Mac users than Windows users -- the bad guys simply write their heinous ware for the larger market. To which I say: That may be at least partially true in the case of OS X vs. Windows, but it flies in the face of reason when it comes to iOS vs. Android.

So now you're saying that the Android Markets are "free" and "open" vs. Apple's heavy-handed curation of its App Store. And now we're getting to an interesting discussion.

Apple users are safer for many reasons. We can talk about size of the Mac population vs. the Windows population, but I firmly believe the answer is far more complex than that (though I have no doubt that population size plays a role).

Apple's decision to curate the App Store and the Mac App Store suggests to some that the company has become the Big Brother it once mocked. I don't buy that. To me, it looks like part of a strategy for keeping its users safer. Another element of that strategy became evident with last week's announcement of the next version of OS X, Mountain Lion, and its Gatekeeper feature.

For all intents and purposes, iOS has had a "Gatekeeper" implicitly in its inner workings since day one. Now, Apple is bringing that to the Mac as well. What is it? It's a security subsystem that prevents unauthorized applications from being installed without the user's explicit permission. In Mountain Lion, those applications can come from the Mac App Store, or they can be digitally signed by a registered Mac application developer. Other software -- including malware and viruses -- are forbidden from being installed.

I know what a good portion of Computerworld's readership has to say about that sort of thing, though: I want more freedom as a user; I need to be able to do whatever I want with my computer. But Apple isn't doing anything to take away such freedom from the population of technically inclined users. You can continue to do as you please, while the masses of less technically accomplished users get a bit of protection from malware. The power to do whatever you want on your computer is something that the vast majority of users wouldn't want, seek or even know what to do with. And yet it's exactly the sort of power we've been providing them for years and years in the PC industry.

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