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Guard Your Dollars Instead of Your Data

April 26, 2001|MARK A. KELLNER |

Got $40 you don't know what to do with? Here are two options: Put two $20 bills in an envelope and send it my way, or buy and install a copy of Symantec Anti-Virus for Palm OS. Either way, you won't see your money again.

That might sound harsh, but this is one piece of software that--however well intentioned--you really don't need. At least, not right now.

The Symantec program, unleashed along with a new version of the desktop PC-oriented Norton Anti-Virus 2001, purports to sit in the background on your Palm OS device and watch for worms, viruses and other unwanted digital intruders. Many people in the business of computer security warn that such attacks on hand-helds are bound to multiply in the future.

Assuming they're right, it would make sense to safeguard personal digital assistants the same way we protect our desktop and laptop computers. But after testing the Symantec product and surveying some other developments in the computer world, I'm not so sure.

For starters, installation of the Symantec software on a brand-new hand-held unscarred by multiple program installs left my Palm m500 without any virus definitions, no matter how hard I tried to make sure the definitions moved from the PC to the hand-held. Without virus profiles to look for, the program refused to scan.

Plus, the program takes up 42 kilobytes of RAM on a Palm. That's not a big amount--in fact, it's only a quarter of the size of a backgammon game I've got installed. I imagine, however, that many Palm users have 2-megabyte models, which would pose a space challenge.

By contrast, the free anti-virus program for Palm OS devices from Computer Associates, Inoculate IT for Palm, available at, takes up only 5 KB of RAM, and it scanned 142 files on my Palm m500 in about seven seconds.

Of course, since it's a new machine, I'd be shocked if a virus were on there. And no, I didn't have one handy to test the unit's defenses.

But there's an even more fundamental question. How will viruses get on a Palm device? If not through installed software--which must be loaded on a PC first for transfer to a Palm and which can be scanned there with existing anti-virus programs--then it might come via an e-mail attachment.

The newest version of Microsoft Outlook, due in stores at the end of May, by default blocks just about every nasty type of attachment known to humanity. In fact, some Outlook testers are concerned that they can't receive the attachments they want to get. Many corporations set up their e-mail servers to block potentially damaging attachments as well, further decreasing the chances of an e-mailed worm for your Palm.

So, if it's difficult to get a worm or virus on your Palm, and the market-leading e-mail program will block attachments, what's the worry? Though there are things to be nervous about when it comes to hand-held computers, maybe--just maybe--viruses and worms aren't as high a priority as the anti-virus software makers would suggest. And if you want to protect your Palm device right now, save the $40 and use the Computer Associates freebie.

Besides, if 1 million people sent their $40 to me instead. . . .


Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News and hosts "Mark Kellner on Computers" at from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.

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