Automatic Update

2010 August 19
by Dave

Analysts and talking heads seemed to be largely flummoxed today by Intel’s purchase of McAfee for seven billion dollars. A few of them hedged that maybe this has to do with Intel’s intention to be a player in the mobile space. I think Intel’s acquisition has everything to do with mobile and embedded computing and very little to do with PC security. It is the answer to the question that I posed last week.

To sum up, when everything is computerized, everything will be worth attacking to a greater or lesser extent, and everything will be worth defending with varying amounts of effort and cost. How those defenses will be implemented is an important question that needs to be answered soon because I don’t want to buy a Norton license for my doorbell.

Well it looks like I’ll get my wish. It won’t be a Norton license, it’ll be an Intel/McAfee license instead.

Intel is gearing up to go toe to toe with ARM in the embedded and mobile computing spaces. Intel wants its Atom line of low energy processors to be a big player in the ubiquitous computing market that is taking shape. Intel’s main disadvantage is security.

The consumer logic goes like this: “My computer gets hacked all the time, but my cell phone has never been hacked. I should buy the Qualcomm dishwasher instead of the Intel one.” Everyone hates anti virus software. They buy it because they hate not having it even more, but they still hate it. Currently people need not worry about viruses on their cell phones. I worry about them, but I’m weird and mostly think that they’d be cool.

Back to the dishwasher purchase. Salesman points to the Qualcomm powered dishwasher and says that this smartwasher’s brain is equivalent to a typical low tier cell phone. He then points to the Intel inside dishwasher and says that it’s brain is equivalent to a five year old laptop. Some portion of consumers will make the leap and wonder if their dishwasher will also get the same viruses that their laptop did five years ago.

The big problem for Intel is that that consumer will be right. The Intel smartwasher will get hacked much more easily than the Qualcomm smartwasher. Not because it is less secure, but because there are thousands of serious ninja hackers that know their way around Intel’s 8086 architecture and the smaller group of people who can work magic with ARM architecture are already employed by the companies that build chips with ARM’s cpu designs in them. So Intel needs to make more secure hardware/software to go in their smartwasher just to stay even.

McAfee brings two things to the table for this effort. First is simply brand recognition. Intel can throw in lifetime McAfee anti virus protection with every coffee pot. People understand that. Furthermore they like it because they are used to paying a subscription for it. Secondly McAfee brings patches. Patches will be vital in the battle that will evolve against botnets that try to take over all these embedded processors. No body will remember to upgrade the software on their iron to get all of the latest security patches so they will need to be upgraded automatically.

McAfee has experience in distributing very low level software upgrades on Intel’s architecture and installing them in infected computers. They also have the infrastructure and systems in place to do it. Intel needs to be able to push out a software upgrade every time an exploit is found in your refrigerator’s operating system for the next twenty or thirty years. My guess is that they looked at what it would take to do it themselves, and figured that buying McAfee is cheaper if you figure in the other bits of value that it brings.

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