Adobe and Apple’s Mavericks OS: Playing nice in the sandbox

: Wikipedia
: Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2013 – Most fans of Apple products remember the late Steve Jobs’ withering 2010 attack on Adobe Flash, issued in conjunction with Apple’s then newly released iPad. Jobs noted that Flash specifically wouldn’t run on the innovative new device because he and his team of engineers—jealously guarding Apple’s hard-won reputation for selling virus- and malware-resistant products—determined that Flash just opened up too many security risks for users.

After an opening exchange with Adobe, Jobs issues a famous memo citing six reasons for his action, having to do most importantly from key issues like reliability, security and battery life. Apple was eventually forced to cave somewhat on its position sometime later. But Adobe did begin issuing more frequent security and code updates for its Flash and Acrobat Reader products to answer Jobs’ objections at least in part.

While Steve has gone on to become one with that Great CPU in the sky, Adobe products and Apple are still here on Planet Earth. But now, in its new OS 10.9, dubbed “Mavericks,” Apple has adopted an increasingly popular method for helping with Flash and other security issues when the Adobe product is running in the latest version of the Cupertino company’s Safari web browser under the new OS. Flash is now “sandboxed” on the Mac, as it is on other browsers.

What this means is technically elegant but actually quite simple. When running Flash on your Mac under the new OS, the Adobe app gets to play in its own special place—the sandbox—which is walled off from the rest of the action but still runs seamlessly and transparently. The nasty code may mess with Flash. But it’s blocked from messing with anything else.

OK, our engineering friends will sneer at this oversimplification. But what it means is that Flash, and products like Adobe Reader—both of which over the years have become favorite places for hackers to bury malicious code—are, essentially, automatically cordoned off from everything else in the OS, causing any malicious code to, well, just get sandbagged in that sandbox. Looks kind of like what we’d call a firewall. But this technique works—proven in other browsers that have supported it—we may have fewer malware worries going forward.

Two observations. First of all, some enterprising teenage hacker or hardened computer criminal or enemy government is likely even now laboring 24/7 on ways to evade Maverick’s Flash sandbox. That’s life in the 21st century. Still, another layer of security, particularly one that’s transparent to users, is always welcome.

Second, as with any new OS, this and a few other innovations in Mavericks are bound to cause a few hiccups after you install the new system. We downloaded and installed Mavericks on our 2011 MacBook Pro and found everything working seamlessly for the most part.

However, we were unable to open or print documents in Adobe Reader when using the latest version of Apple’s Safari browser, something we haven’t yet been able to remedy, although we are reading of workarounds that may fix the issue, including at least one available through the OS. We’ll check them out and update this article if we can get the Reader to work in Safari.

We’ve also read that, at least so far, no one is experiencing problems running Adobe’s Creative Suite products, at least those released in standalone versions like CS5 and CS6. Our own copy of PhotoShop CS5 worked just fine. But there may be a few glitches for those running Adobe productivity software in the new “Creative Cloud” subscription model.

There are lots of other nice things in Mavericks, including an Apple eBook reader, at last, for the Mac. Many of these new features help make the Mac interface more at one with what iPhone and iPad users are familiar with in iOS 6 and the new iOS 7. But you can read about these features all over the web. Since we ran into some problems with Flash and Acrobat, we thought to raise the issue here so you’d know what to expect.

Fortunately for Mac users, however, when upgrading to Mavericks, they won’t have to deal with a bunch of horsey-looking home page buttons like those that disgruntled Windows 8.0 users have griped about for over a year. Mister Softie’s revised Windows 8.1 has a belated, kludgy workaround for that one.

But better to ease users gradually into a new interface, rather than dumping them into something like Windows 8.0 or the even worse Office 365. Which is what Apple generally does.

One final thing…we’ve read that during its installation, Mavericks deletes any old copy of Flash, so you may have to download and re-install the app. However, we didn’t notice this happening after our Mavericks install on the MacBook Pro. In other words, as with all computers, depending on what you’ve already installed on your Macintosh, your Mavericks mileage may vary.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17