HELSINKI (Reuters) - Software security companies and handset makers, including Finland's Nokia, are gearing up to launch products intended to secure cell phones from variants of the Internet viruses that have become a scourge for personal computer users.
Experts say the threat of viruses to advanced handheld devices like smartphones remains small for now, due in part to the range of handheld technologies in the market, unlike PC operating software, which is dominated by Microsoft Corp. .
But analysts say market concerns about the potential risk -- and the related business opportunity -- have spiked since June when Cabir, the first known worm written for mobile devices, appeared.
"A couple of years ago, we were calling mobile companies about the future risks, but their response was 'Thanks but no thanks.' Now, in recent months they've been calling us," said Matias Impivaara, a mobile security specialist at Finnish security firm F-Secure .
Some handheld makers have been preparing for viruses designed for mobile devices in recent years and are ready to release new devices built with antiviral software.
Nokia, the world's largest mobile-phone maker, is expected to soon release 6670 smartphones equipped with antiviral software from F-Secure.
Security software maker McAfee Inc., of Santa Clara, California, is also developing antiviral software for devices made by NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan's biggest wireless operator.
Victor Kouznetsov, senior vice president for mobile solutions at McAfee, said the company's antiviral software built into DoCoMo's mobile devices was likely to be ready for consumers in the coming weeks.
Symantec Corp., the world's biggest security software maker by revenue, already has antiviral products available for Palm Powered smartphones and Microsoft Windows mobile-based pocket PCs.
Cupertino, California-based Symantec is also building antiviral software for Nokia and is in discussions with a number of large handheld and wireless companies, said Matt Ekram, product manager for mobile security at Symantec.
Smartphones, or cell phones built with services like e-mail and Internet access, are seen as the biggest potential target in the handheld market for virus writers.
There are currently about 1.5 billion to 1.8 billion global mobile phone users, according to various industry estimates. Of that, the number of smart phone users is expected to grow to about 20 million in 2004, up from about 3 million two years ago, industry researchers say.
Security analysts said Cabir was sent to software security companies by a group called 29a, virus writers from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to demonstrate the ability to hit handheld users with viruses.
Cabir did not carry malicious code that could have destroyed files, but if a phone user had followed the prompting of the virus the program was capable of draining a phone battery of its power.
Unlike Cabir, many worms often enter a personal computer without a user's intervention and analysts warn that more sophisticated worms could be programmed in future to do things like shut down phones or record conversations.
"Things are clearly changing. As these mobile devices get more sophisticated and applications are added, companies making the devices will no longer have the certainty to say that nasty stuff won't be able to infect their devices," said Charles Golvin, a California-based analyst at Forrester Research.
Consumers buying Nokia's new 6670 smartphones will get F-Secure's mobile security software free for the first month then have to renew the subscription at about 3 euros ($3.68) a month, F-Secure's Impivaara said.
F-Secure and Nokia, like other security software companies and handheld device makers, would not comment on how much they expect antiviral software built into handheld devices to add to revenues or on how they will split the money from sales.
Analysts say higher-priced software security products aimed at the PC market will still dominate the lion's share of revenues for software security companies.
There are currently about 575 million PC users globally, according to Forrester Research