sad macThe commonly held, and perhaps misguided, idea that Apple’s Mac computers are impervious to viruses, malware, and spamware has been brought into question this week with reports that Apple is engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with malware programmers, according to ZDNet.

On Tuesday, Apple released a patch to stop the dreaded MacDefender malware, which looks an awful lot like an Apple program but installs harmful software instead. Only hours after the patch, the makers of the malware — now called Mac Guard — modified the names of the files in order to bypass Apple’s new defenses. In response, Apple updated its software definitions early Thursday morning in order to try to thwart malware makers once again.

It’s likely the cycle will keep repeating until the malware makers get tired of changing file names or Apple finds a better solution than continuous patches and updated definitions.

Mac users have long been safer from malicious software attacks than Windows users because the makers of harmful software want to go after the most possible users. Windows has more than 85 percent of OS market share, while Apple’s OS X has less than 7 percent, according to GlobalStats.

But just because there are fewer threats doesn’t mean there aren’t any viable ones. Prominent security software provider Norton has been paying attention to Mac security for years and has offered security products for Mac since December 2008 that offer firewall and antivirus protection.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball pointed out in early May that all the talk about Mac malware may be a case of crying wolf. He points out that similar articles about hackers trying to attack Mac users have been written for several years with no real action happening.

I think this time is different. Apple has never been in the business of releasing software updates to stop malware, and Mac advertising has even poked fun of Windows for being so vulnerable to viruses. Now that Apple’s brand value is growing and Mac sales keep increasing, it’s easy to see why hackers would want to take a stab at building infectious software for Macs.

Do you think the idea that Macs are less vulnerable to viruses is overplayed? Are you concerned virus makers will begin explicitly targeting Macs after this latest shakeup?

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