Intel + McAfee: Crazy or Crazy Like a Fox?

When Intel revealed late last week that it was purchasing security software firm McAfee for a staggering $7.86 billion, the announcement was received with a collective "Huh??" from industry insiders. Intel—the world's dominant chipmaker and a company still embroiled in the kinds of antitrust issues that Microsoft left behind it years ago— has seemingly little in common with McAfee, which has fed, leech-like, on real and imagined PC security problems for decades. What kind of synergy could these two companies possibly offer?

Amazingly, the answer could make sense. I've argued for years that security isn't an application or service that PC users should buy but rather a feature of the software systems they use and thus should be included with those systems for free. I've made this argument in terms of Windows, generally, because Windows is the dominant software platform on both the client and the server.

But the world is changing. Although PC makers will sell more PCs this year than last and more again in 2011, people are increasingly using smartphones and other mobile devices to access computing resources. This might seem strange to someone who grew up in a connected, first-world country, but for a growing generation of users, those mobile devices are the only form of computing they'll ever know.

For this reason, the discussion about security and other safety protections needs to extend beyond the software OS that is currently found on the dominant computing platform. Not only do PCs need to be protected but also smartphones and other mobile devices, TVs, cars, medical devices, and much, much more. As our planet becomes ever more connected, our need for integrated protection from electronic threats becomes ever more important.

My initial reaction to the McAfee purchase was one of shock, but the more I think about this ongoing industry direction, the more I start to see the sense in Intel's move and the opportunity it represents. So, rather than make snide jokes about annual McAfee security subscriptions for toasters and DVD players—an all-too real possibility, sadly—I'm trying to envision a future where Intel instead sells its integrated microprocessor and chipset systems based, in part, on their integrated security functionality. In other words, Intel will simply include McAfee-based protection in its products and use that protection as one of many selling points.

This is a thrilling proposition. Even if we limit this discussion solely to the PC desktop, the possibilities are interesting. Rather than expecting consumers and businesses to purchase expensive security software subscriptions, PCs should simply ship with low-level, hardware-based security features that are, in turn, leveraged by Windows and other software systems.

But wait, you say: Didn't Microsoft, Intel, and others already try something like this with the Palladium technologies that became Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) but then they were significantly detuned only to appear in more limited form as BitLocker and the Trusted Platform Module? Why yes, they did.

I feel somewhat lonely in the belief that it was a good idea then and it's an even better idea now because the security protections can be so much more wide-reaching. Indeed, coupled with the integrated security protections in non-PC devices, we could indeed finally be heading toward a future that's both more connected and more secure.

When the Intel/McAfee announcement came last week, I jokingly opined that Intel should do the world a favor and simply put down McAfee, saving us all from bloated and unnecessary software suites. Maybe that's exactly what Intel will do: Integrate the underlying McAfee technologies into its hardware products, and provide OS and software application makers like Microsoft with the hooks they need to take advantage of the new features. Then, over time, we won't need additional security software on PCs and other connected devices.

This is an idealistic view, of course. But that doesn't mean it's impossible or that it won't happen. If it does, Intel's purchase of McAfee won't seem crazy at all. Indeed, it might be seen as an important turning point for the industry at large. Cross your fingers.

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