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McAfee takes crack at antivirus software for handhelds

The company's VirusScan Handheld program runs on a desktop computer and scans the handheld device.

McAfee has begun offering antivirus software to protect devices from the nascent threat of bugs written for handheld computers.

The new software--McAfee VirusScan Handheld--keeps known viruses from being transmitted between a desktop computer and handheld devices running the Palm operating system, Symbian's EPOC operating system, and Windows CE or its successor, Pocket PC, said product marketing manager Ryan McGee.

The product begins to address a new, largely unprotected domain where viruses could spread. Though limited by bare-bones operating systems, handhelds are gaining in power and popularity, and sellers are avidly pushing devices that connect wirelessly to the Internet. A virus in Spain called Timofonica already attacked some cell phones.

However, the antivirus software doesn't yet run on the handheld itself. Instead, it runs only on a desktop computer and scans the handheld device when files on the PC and handheld are synchronized, McGee said.

That means the handheld is still open to virus transmission when it exchanges information directly with the Internet or with another handheld.

Some competitors believe antivirus software can be run on the gadgets themselves, though. Competitor Symantec has prototype antivirus software, which runs directly on a Palm device (it's limited to Palms).

And F-Secure unveiled software two weeks ago that runs on EPOC, an operating system designed by a cell-phone maker consortium called Symbian for smart cell phones and other handheld devices.

The reason for McAfee's desktop approach, according to McGee, is that on current handhelds "the operating environment is too restrictive right now to develop software to reside on the device and scan it when not connected to a PC."

In other words, handhelds don't have enough memory or processing power to run full-fledged antivirus software. For example, Symantec's list of virus definitions alone--not including the antivirus software itself--is 2.4MB long, while the most brawny Palm devices have only 8MB of memory.

The silver lining, though, is that virus writers face the same limited environment when trying to create bugs.

While handhelds don't suffer from known viruses, McAfee knows virus writers are turning their attention to the new environment, McGee said. "We expect that in a year, we'll probably see the first virus written for the handheld environment," he said.

The chief threat is that the handhelds will act as a conduit, transferring viruses from one desktop computer to another. For example, a Windows CE device running a stripped-down version of Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet software isn't capable of running the small programs called "macros" that often are central to virus propagation. But a person could transmit an infected file from one PC to another with the device.

Eventually, when handhelds get more power, people will be able to run the antivirus software directly on the handheld, McGee said.

"We've seen the Palm?alone go from 1MB (of memory) initially to 8MB now. We'll see continued development in hardware to make those devices ever more powerful and memory loaded," he said.

The McAfee service is aimed at corporate customers and costs $25 per handheld per year for 500 handhelds or more or $12 per handheld for 5,000 and up, the company said. Mcafee also offers a consumer version. McAfee is a division of Network Associates.