Friday, September 1, 2000

Pocket PC Viruses: Myth or looming threat?

Anti-virus software

Currently, only McAfee.com is publicly offering an anti-virus solution for the Pocket PC. Both Symantec and Trend Micro claim to have solutions on the way, and Computer Associates even announced a solution that would be used with Symbol's Windows CE-based solutions back in January of this year. See http://www.cai.com/press/2000/01/symbol.htm for the press release. I've been in touch with Computer Associates and can find no such product currently available for the Pocket PC. I was sent a demo that supposedly contained it, but I was unable to find any such beast on the CD. The problem with traditional anti-virus software models is that an installation to a Pocket PC would require more memory than most units currently possess. McAfee's solution runs on the desktop PC only, but Computer Associates claims that their solution runs on the device itself.

McAfee.com

McAfee.com's solution, called VirusScan for Windows CE, resides on your desktop PC and scans your Pocket PC whenever you connect. The product is a part of McAfee.com's offerings and requires ActiveSync 3.0 or higher. McAfee.com sells VirusScan for Windows CE as a one-year subscription priced at $29.95, which includes updates that you can download manually or automatically on a chosen schedule.

Again, McAfee's solution requires no installation on the Pocket PC itself and is set by default to activate whenever you connect to your desktop PC. Similar to its desktop cousin, it gives you the option to scan all files or simply Program files. You can also include your ROM files in your scan and choose Scan Now if you prefer to launch a manual scan, as you can see in Figure A.

FIGURE A

Here are the console features for McAfee.com's VirusScan for Windows CE. (click for larger image)

The scan itself works fine but can take a few minutes to run, especially if you choose to scan all files or add the ROM files in as well. It runs simultaneously with your synchronization, so it doesn't slow you down too much. However, if you're trying to synchronize quickly before running to a meeting, you'll probably find yourself canceling the automatic scan. I was disappointed, though, that you never receive a message after the scan letting you know that no virus was detected.

While I trust McAfee's help file that clearly states you will be alerted if a virus is detected, I still need the sense of closure a summary of the scan provides. I'm just sensitive that way. As for its accuracy in detecting Pocket PC viruses, only time will tell. McAfee's reputation in the virus field is solid enough to buy a little bit of trust from me, though.

The real drawback to McAfee.com's solution, however, is its inability to protect you from infections in the wild. While it does provide your desktop protection from an infection carried by the Pocket PC and scans the device itself for viruses, it cannot prevent you from picking up a virus when you're roaming free and disconnected from your desktop.

You could still catch a virus from infrared contact with another Pocket PC or via a wireless connection to the Internet or some other source. This virus would be detected the next time you connect to your machine, but if the virus were meant for your Pocket PC, the damage could already be done. Again, memory restrictions on current Pocket PCs hinders McAfee's ability to provide a full solution on the device itself, but some sort of offering would be nice as memory size increases.