Antivirus software vendor Symantec yesterday announced that it is developing software to safeguard Palm's operating system – even though handhelds running the OS have yet to be hit by viruses, according to Palm officials.

The move came after security experts identified the Timofonica virus from Spain that slipped into mobile phones this week and flooded them with email messages.

"Once we start seeing attacks in the wild against Palm and others... we need to be prepared," said Ron Moritz, Symantec's chief technical officer. "It is important to have a technology in place. Ultimately this is an arms race."

Pain from Spain Timofonica came on the heels of the "ILOVEYOU" virus, which kissed computers last month, causing billions of US dollars of damage. After that attack, antivirus vendors began making more noise about the need for preventative measures and that approach is in full swing now that the Spanish virus has appeared, affecting devices that haven't previously seemed under threat,

In the past, cellular phones and handheld operating systems have not been designed with security in mind, Moritz explained. Technologies are now increasingly vulnerable as they connected more and more to the Internet, he added.

For example, a Palm 7 device uses a wireless connection to the Internet, Moritz said. A user can download an application from the Net and the potential exists for the device's address book or date book to be corrupted by a virus, he suggested.

Clean hands There currently are no known computer virus, worm or Trojan horse threats targeting handheld devices. The Palm operating system, however, is susceptible to malicious code like other mainstream computing platforms since it runs a wide variety of programs, Symantec officials said.

Symantec has not yet decided whether its Palm antivirus software, currently a prototype, will be made available for users to purchase or be bundled with the Palm devices, Moritz said. Company officials have not set any release date for the software.

Moritz said Symantec has talked with several Northern California companies about the antivirus software. Given the choice to put a chess game or a security application on his handheld, Moritz said he probably would add the chess game.

"The risk to Palm today is relatively small," he said.

The risk will become greater as increasing numbers of people purchase handheld computers, making the devices a more attractive target for sabotage, Moritz said. An estimated 50 million personal handhelds will be a part of the business world worldwide by 2003, a 1999 International Data Corporation (IDC) report concluded. A Forrester Research report also estimates the mobile workforce will account for 57 per cent of the total workforce in the next two years, up from the current level of 35 per cent.