Intel Buys McAfee: Is The PC Security Model Dead?

When it comes to emerging platforms like smartphones, tablets, and embedded networked systems, the old model of separate antivirus security companies is officially dead. And Intel's purchase of McAfee puts a stake in it.

Rob Enderle, Contributor

August 20, 2010

4 Min Read

When it comes to emerging platforms like smartphones, tablets, and embedded networked systems, the old model of separate antivirus security companies is officially dead. And Intel's purchase of McAfee puts a stake in it.The PC model simply wasn't sustainable because it put security companies at odds with the platform providers they secured, and the solutions were an ugly trade-off of solving some potential security exposures by causing consistent performance problems. Intel's move to buy McAfee, much like Microsoft's purchase of Sybari years ago, is an indicator of change that will felt as the next generation of technology is developed for the market.

The reason Microsoft decided to let third parties do security on Windows was that, initially, its entire model was based on a heavy third-party application plan. In addition, security initially was mostly about access, and given that computers generally weren't networked, viruses that spread via floppy drives were relatively easy to manage. So Microsoft left it up to others, and an industry of the likes of McAfee, Symantec, and Trend Micro was born.

But so was a big problem. You can't sell security to a secure customer: You have to make them feel insecure. This is called the insurance sale; you have to make people think they are going to have a loss if you want them to buy something that will compensate them for it. If folks feel safe, then they won't buy.

This put security vendors, particularly AV vendors on Windows, at odds with Microsoft because they increasingly had to find and point out flaws in Windows in order to sell products that mitigated these flaws.

The process to both intercept and scan for viruses remains resource-intensive. Until there was performance headroom in the past decade, a virus scan could bring a PC to its knees; users either turned the process off or complained about the poor performance. This became particularly painful as Apple improved and users had a choice, and increasingly chose, the platform that didn't have antivirus software.

Smartphone, tablet, and embedded vendors certainly don't want to repeat this mistake, and Intel is offering them an alternative by buying McAfee.

This won't happen overnight, nor will it be easy, but Intel's plan is to recognize that security exposures are not only going to get worse, but they also will spread to other systems that are increasingly being connected. Monitoring, communications, automotive, medical, manufacturing, in-flight, and law enforcement systems (and this is hardly an exhaustive list) are being connected to the network, and that connection becomes vulnerable to attack by viruses and hackers. However, the companies building and selling these systems generally have no competence with this kind of problem because their systems have either not been connected, or they used dedicated and secured networks and not the Internet.

This could lead to unimagined exposures that either could significantly slow products to market or cause them to fail spectacularly once they arrive. Even the new smartphone and emerging smartphone-based tablet space -- which is designed to be networked -- is largely driven by vendors that haven't really had to worry about viruses and hackers except when it comes to breaking the carrier lock on the devices. Even for that relatively simple exposure, they have had a troubled history.

This suggests a different approach: one in which security is designed in at the front-end of a product. Intel now has a plan for those vendors that don't have the expertise to do this.

Intel's purchase of McAfee makes sense because you need a team that has expertse in the threat in order to deal with it in a timely way; the PC market is where the expertise exists. Symantec was too broad and expensive, firms like Kaspersky too limited and likely too remote physically, and McAfee appeared to be a bargain. So a marriage was conceived.

Because Intel doesn't yet have a software competence, it is at least initially leaving the firm separate, but I expect it will eventually revisit this as it discovers the need to combine the companies' acquired software competencies into a more cohesive unit. The goal, however, is to create an environment in which security is designed in from the start, with hardware tuned for it and performance impact, minimized.

This path is not without risk: Intel is neither a software nor security expert at this point, and acquisitions often challenge firms as they learn to understand them. However, without an edge, Intel likely wouldn't be able to make much inroads into the targeted markets, and performance alone isn't enough edge. Security in an insecure world could be just the edge to get it into consideration and to design wins once the solution is fully fleshed out.

That makes this one of the few high-risk strategic decisions this year -- and large stable companies like Intel aren't typically known for that. That's why large, stable companies often don't stay large and stable. More of them should take regular bets to better assure their long-term future. Intel did, and suddenly it isn't just big -- it's also interesting again.

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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