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The FTC has decided to permit Intel's acquisition of McAfee.  (Source: Flickr)
Company is now cleared to start its "hardware security" bid

Many were baffled by Intel's August announcement that it was acquiring McAfee, the leading maker of antivirus software, for $7.68B USD.  While Intel touted the promise of "hardware security" options, many felt that the deal was like trying to cross a cactus with an apple tree -- they just didn't go together.

But for better or worse the deal has been officially approved by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the government agency tasked with monitoring the market and making sure mergers and acquisitions don't represent a threat to competition.

While the deal has earned the FTC's blessing, Intel is reportedly having a much harder time convincing the European Commission -- the antitrust arm of the European Union -- to approve it.  The EC -- which recently fined Intel $1.45B USD for antitrust violations -- is reportedly concerned that the deal would prevent McAfee's security rivals from fairly competing with it.

They say that if Intel packages security on-chip, it would be effectively guaranteeing that most computers offered a built in advantage to McAfee.  That would hurt companies like Symantec in seeking to sell customers rival antivirus suites.

The fear is perhaps justified, given Intel's tactics in the past.  Intel has been caught modifying its compilers and other software to sabotage the performance of rival hardware makers' products, such as AMD CPUs or NVIDIA GPUs.

Even if the Intel/McAfee union gets the green light, significant challenges remain.  While Intel has some experience embedding a typically software-driven technology on its CPUs, with its vPro virtualization platform, embedding anti-malware functionality may be tougher task.  

On the one hand, putting security scanning algorithms on-chip could greatly enhance their speed and remove the burden they typically put on the CPU cores.  However, getting updated malware signatures to the core, with which to detect suspicious files would be no easy task.  In the first half of 2010, alone McAfee logged 10 million new malware variants.

Another possibility is that Intel might monitor specific instruction sequences to the CPU for signs of misbehavior.  Again, this would be very tricky to pull off, though.

In the short term, whether the deal is approved or not McAfee will likely function primarily independent of Intel.  Intel has already promised to run McAfee as an independent company, initially headed by Chief Executive Officer Dave DeWalt.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini promises big things from that collaboration, stating, "Only the combination of hardware and software … can yield this kind of innovation, and that's the reason for buying McAfee."

But how or when those nebulous promises of "hardware security" are actualized is even more uncertain than the acquisition's pending approval with European regulators.

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RE: McAfee
By Maximalist on 12/22/2010 2:44:25 PM , Rating: 5
Here is my 2 cents on Symantec Norton.

I am an IT services provider and professionally deploy PCs for 12 years. My shop has had major grief with Norton security software several years after its acquisition by Symantec, who basically patched together a bloated half-baked security Frankenstein and successfully pushed it in the consumer segment for many years riding on the Norton brand.

Later on (circa 2007) a buddy of mine working at Symantec in Eugene, OR, revealed that the consumer security development at Symantec was just a handful of lazy hacks, who did very little since Windows XP era. Instead of optimizing Norton security software for evolving threats and operating systems (i.e., Vista), Symantec decided to complain and embark on an in- and out-of-court smear campaign against Microsoft. Other lazy hacks happily joined in. This tactic resulted in a major obstacles for Vista to realize its full potential.

After Vista's release in late 2006, my shop had a serious problem finding any Tier 1 or Tier 2 security software compatible with Vista until May 2007. This is like 6 months! We resorted to installing a 90-day castrated trial of Microsoft's Live OneCare as the only "designed for Vista" security software available at that time. It was ridiculous.

My shop develops for Microsoft platforms and, as a partner, I can tell that the industry had fully working Vista builds and documentation for 8 months prior to its release. One ought to think that major Tier 1 security vendors like Symantec could develop compatible software in time for the release. Instead, they sued and bad-mouthed the new operating system to keep the industry from moving on and stick to older technology thus impeding progress.

If we were, perhaps, neutral towards consumer Symantec's Norton brand before, since 2006, we refrain from using it and recommend others to stay away from Symantec Norton. To our relief, Microsoft realized that relying on the partner ecosystem (consisting of Symantecs of the world) is a bad strategy and released its own FREE security software that is optimized for the operating system.

With free Microsoft Security Essentials 1.0 and now 2.0, I do not see any major reason for 3rd party consumer security software to exist. Hope that Microsoft does more consumer marketing/educating with regards to security.

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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