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Mobile and beyond

The situation is broadly similar in the increasingly important world of smartphones. According to one survey, Apple has a 28.6% share, RIM 26.1% share and Android 25.8% share. The exact figures aren't really the issue: what this clearly shows is a dynamic market with several powerful players – and no monoculture. Moreover, things are likely to get even more complicated once HP's WebOS smartphones start arriving – to say nothing of Nokiasoft's models, when they eventually turn up.

This diversity in the smartphone sector might seem to have little to do with the Microsoft monoculture – after all, these are just phones, right? Wrong: smartphones are essentially powerful computers that fit in your pocket or purse and happen to have a telephone built in. In terms of functions and features, very little separates a smartphone from traditional desktops or notebooks. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that more and more people – especially in developing countries – will use smartphones as their primary means of carrying out computing tasks and accessing the internet.

And that, of course, means that the overall computing ecosystem is becoming even more diverse: in addition to programs like Firefox and Chrome being more widely used on traditional PCs, we are seeing a huge growth in form factors other than PCs.

And it's not just about smartphones. The undoubted success of Apple's iPad has introduced yet another option, one that is a kind of hybrid between the touch screen based smartphone and the larger format PCs. Although it's true that the tablet sector is pretty much a monoculture at the moment, that is certain to change as the flood of Honeycomb-based Android tablets arrives this year. It doesn't seem unreasonable to expect these to take off in the same way as Android phones have done in the last year, leading to a duopoly in this market. Alongside these, there will also be other options, for example tablets based on HP's WebOS and those running Windows 7, although it's not clear how popular either of those will be.

Taken together, all these disparate moves to alternative programs and alternative platforms means that the Microsoft monoculture based around Windows, Internet Explorer and Office running on an Intel-based desktop PC is definitively fading away. Unfortunately, that doesn't imply that malware problems, estimated to cause $13 billion worth of economic damage back in 2007, and probably much higher now, will simply fade away too.

One reason is the residual effect of the Microsoft monopoly. For example, as the story from The H Security explains, new versions of the ZeuS banking trojan for mobile phones work because of vulnerabilities in Windows:

The most important step is still infecting a Windows PC. Then, victims view a specially crafted web site that masquerades as a security update for the victim's cell phone.

Victims are asked to enter their cell phone number so they can receive a link for the download in a text message. The PC infected with the trojan then promptly sends a text message containing a link to what appears to be a new security certificate. Users are then asked to download and install the certificate on their mobile phones, which requires an internet connection on the phone.

The downloaded file contains the mobile version of ZeuS, which then analyses and forwards all incoming text messages.

This means that the baleful effect of the Microsoft monoculture will still be felt for many years to come as it is used as a kind of gateway to the new platforms that are arriving but which remain tethered to it through the user.

And of course it is that user who remains the fundamental weak point that can always be exploited, whatever the underlying platform. But at least the emerging ecosystem of multiple hardware and software systems makes it much harder for malware authors to make correct assumptions about what else is available for them to subvert and deploy.

The passing of the Microsoft monoculture is no panacea for today's computing security problems, but the richer, more complex world that is replacing it will certainly be better than what people have been putting up with for the last decade and a half without fully realising it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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