September 16, 2010, 12:35 PM

Some consumers are catching on to smartphone security

Many smartphone owners are downloading a security app to protect against viruses and malware.

Lead Photo

Some app developers decry Apple Inc.’s arduous app certification process as too demanding. But Apple demands a lot from app developers for a variety of reasons, a big one being security.

Apple’s iPhone operating system is closed, meaning no one can gain access to the inner workings of the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Plus, the mobile version of Apple’s Safari browser does not allow web sites to download anything to the mobile device. So, in the end, the only thing that can be added to an iPhone is an app certified by Apple as authentic and secure.

Other mobile operating systems, however, are a whole different story when it comes to security. That’s because they are open, meaning app developers can access the inner workings of a smartphone operating system. Such is the case with the increasingly popular Android operating system, which accounts for 13% of smartphones in use and is growing fast, according to The Nielsen Co. While openness can benefit developers—Android doesn’t even require certification as is the case with Apple—it also offers opportunities for criminals.

“One of the first major exploits on Android was an app in Android Marketplace that looked like it was a bank app, but, in fact, it was created by some guy that had no affiliation with the bank, and a lot of people entered their user names and passwords into the fraudulent app,” explains David Eads, CEO of Mobile Strategy Partners, an m-commerce consulting firm whose specialties include mobile security. “A mobile security app can look for those types of apps on the device and say this is a known bad app and automatically remove it.”

Smartphones essentially are mini-computers, and if they are open, they are susceptible to viruses, malware and other threats. Seeing a new market in the making, a handful of start-up companies have begun selling mobile security apps that guard against viruses and malware—such as the fake bank Android app—and keep users up to date on mobile device threats.

NetQin Mobile Inc. is one of the first players to emerge in the nascent mobile security market, and it’s attracted the attention of many mobile phone users. So far, the company reports, its free NetQin mobile app has been downloaded 5 million times in the GetJar app store, a cross-platform shop for owners of smartphones using the Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile and other operating systems, as well as other more conventional devices like the Motorola RAZR, which can browse the web and download select apps. The 5 million downloads have led to 4,000 mobile phone owners actively using the NetQin app every day, a significant number, app experts say, because most apps are downloaded, used a couple times, and then forgotten or deleted. While the app itself is free, NetQin charges for virus and malware updates.

NetQin has been using the GetJar pay-per-download, in-store advertising platform, which offers developers the opportunity to bid for premium catalog placement in GetJar’s store and set their own maximum daily budgets. In doing so, the site insures a developer only pays when a consumer successfully downloads the advertised app. NetQin will not reveal details of its advertising spend, but it reports that 90% of GetJar users who viewed the advertised app downloaded it and used it at least once.

“For open-system phones we absolutely need some form of protection—it’s just not clear yet in the market what that is going to be,” says Eads of Mobile Strategy Partners. “What is clear is that smartphones are a part of peoples’ lives. In a matter of years more people will be using their smartphones for computing and the Internet than use their PCs. And with the growth of Android, which is open, Android is already a huge target. There are so many people using Android and other smartphones with open systems that it’s simply a good idea to have virus and other security.”

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