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The Story of McAfee: How the Security Giant Arrived at a Second IPO

Industry watchers explore the story of McAfee, from its founding in 1987, to its spinoff from Intel, to how it's keeping up with competitors.

"How do we become relevant when the data center goes away, when the corporate network goes away? What are we going to do when the world is all about endpoints and users and applications?" Stiennon says of McAfee's need to compete in a cloud-first world. The threat space was changing; signature-based antivirus was becoming less prominent. More people were keeping their email in the cloud; desktop productivity tools moved to the cloud as well.

When McAfee re-emerged as a standalone company, CEO Chris Young made sweeping changes, eliminating non-core products, debuting new enterprise tools, and updating its market strategy.

It didn't take long for the company to go all-in on cloud post-Intel. In 2017, it acquired cloud access security broker (CASB) provider Skyhigh Networks, a "really brilliant acquisition … and that's now the anchor product in their portfolio," says Firstbrook. Skyhigh was a major part of McAfee's transition to the cloud. A couple of years later, McAfee debuted its MVISION portfolio in October 2019, consolidating the security management layer and bringing stability improvements, Forrester's Sherman points out.

MVISION includes MVISION Cloud for protecting software-, infrastructure-, and platform-as-a-service environments; MVISION Endpoint and MVISION EDR; and MVISION ePO. The lineup was released to help businesses protect data and block threats across endpoint devices, networks, and the cloud. At this year's RSA Conference, it launched a managed threat detection and response (MDR) service.

"They were the first to talk about native security integration with endpoint security products," Firstbrook notes; now, other vendors have followed suit. Sherman, who tracks customer satisfaction in annual surveys, says last year was McAfee's highest-scoring year for its endpoint security tool, though he notes McAfee's high scores were average compared with other endpoint vendors. 

Its MVISION and MDR offerings are signs McAfee is working to compete with big players in the EDR and extended detection and response (XDR) spaces. 

"Over the years, we have evolved our strategies to align with technology trends and ensure that we are able to defend customers, regardless of where and how they do business," says current McAfee CTO Steve Grobman, who points to the cloud as an example: "As enterprises change how they work and move to the cloud, we have invested more in protecting the cloud."

This strategy is evident in the recent acquisitions of application visibility and security platform NanoSec (2019) and browser isolation technology provider Light Point Security (2020). Grobman says McAfee plans to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) technology to protect against future threats.

But even with its commitment to aligning with technology trends, the company has obstacles ahead if it wants to be competitive. "How do you rebrand an old brand that has this loyal installed base but doesn't attract new customers? That's its biggest challenge," says Firstbrook.

McAfee's "saving grace" has been large enterprise customers who have remained loyal, he continues, but it will need to work hard to win over new users. Integration is a powerful sell, given the industry trend toward consolidation. Security teams want to eliminate technical debt and cut the number of vendors they work with, as a means to lower operating expenses. There's a huge demand for integrated products, he says — something Grobman also points out.

"We put a lot of focus on ensuring our technologies work together," Grobman says. "Defending an environment requires multiple technologies and having a strong portfolio of defense technologies is critical for our customers."

It's Not All Business: A Look at McAfee's Consumer Side
As McAfee's enterprise division evolved, so, too, did its consumer products, says Forrester principal analyst Heidi Shey, who has been watching McAfee since 2010. By then, consumers knew it was important to have security tools on PCs, and free tools were popular: Avast and AVG were favorites; McAfee was among the top five brands for consumer security in the US.

"McAfee's consumer products have evolved over time as well," she says. Its LiveSafe tool, which debuted in 2013, brought together antivirus protection and identity theft protection, among other features. In 2017, it broke into the consumer Internet of Things space with its Secure Home Platform.

"These changes reflected changing security threats like rising identity theft and Internet-connected smart devices in the home, as well as new ways of going to market like embedding their software onto home routers and working together with Internet service providers," Shey notes. Intel's acquisition had little impact on McAfee's identity as a consumer brand, she says.

Its position as an enterprise and consumer business gives McAfee visibility and insight into security threats across the home and the workplace. But while we tend to treat these as separate — and for good reason, she says — the current environment indicates this may evolve.

"In a world where the lines between work and home blur, and where work-from-home or remote work becomes the norm for many," Shey says, "how we think about security needs to change."

McAfee has shown it will invest in its consumer product line where and when it needs to, she continues. Its enterprise business generates a larger portion of its revenue, so it's "not surprising" to see more attention there.

In addition to investing in AI to power defensive technologies, Grobman says, McAfee is focused on tracking the expansion of security threats as the way people use cloud continues to change. "Over the next three years, McAfee will be very focused on ensuring that we have the right defenses in all these areas to help defend both enterprises and consumers," he says.

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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