The news of Intel's $7.68 billion acquisition of McAfee was a bit of a surprise to many of us, and the vague justifications both sides offered for the deal largely focused on the proliferation of mobile devices. However, I couldn't help but think of another implication of this acquisition for the traditional PC market. Buying McAfee instantly makes Intel one of the leading perpetrators of the pay-for-play bloatware model that infects brand-new PCs from nearly all of the major vendors with heaping amounts of unnecessary software—software that often chews up resources, slows one's system, prompts users to update or purchase a "full version" incessantly, and might be better replaced with freeware alternatives.
This New York Times article from last year tells the sordid tale of the preinstallation pay-for-play model and McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt's pride in his firm's leadership position there:
In a bold and somewhat risky bid to raise its stature with consumers, McAfee has tried to win over PC makers with something they all like: lots of cash. In the last year, it spent $55 million, more than any of its rivals, to get McAfee security software preloaded onto new computers. It now counts Dell, Acer, Toshiba, Sony and Lenovo as partners.
"We are shipping on twice as many computers as the year prior," Mr. DeWalt said.
Up to 40 percent of all computers bought by consumers this year will include McAfee’s software, the brokerage firm Jefferies & Company estimates.
The problem of trialware has gotten so bad that retailers who sell PCs, like Office Depot, have begun offering new PC "optimization" services. Office Depot's service explicitly includes "removal of annoying trialware" and costs $89.99.
One could debate whether a security suite like McAfee's fits neatly into the "unnecessary" trialware category. (Office Depot's service, for instance, includes installation of McAfee Internet Security.) But you don't have to go far to find a PC user who counts the uninstallation of McAfee or Symantec security software as a first step in the setup of brand-new system. The second step? Installation of a lighter freeware alternative like AVG, Avast!, or MS Security Essentials. These options cost the user nothing, and they offer comparable protection from threats with an often perceptible reduction in the performance-sapping system slowdowns for which McAfee and Symantec have built a reputation.
If Intel continues McAfee's preinstallation pay-to-play strategy, it will be participating in a shady practice that involves paying PC makers to use its products instead of the competition's. That's perhaps not the sort of thing Intel would be wise to do, considering that it's recently been in hot water with regulatory agencies at home and around the globe for similar practices related to chips. If Intel were then to incorporate hardware acceleration of McAfee's security software into its processors or chipsets, as hinted at in today's announcement, the legal questions surrounding its practices could become exponentially thornier.
More important than the legal concerns is the impact that trialware has on the user experience and, as a result, on the health of the consumer PC ecosystem—an ecosystem Intel has sought diligently to enhance and protect in various ways over the years. Not for nothing are Apple's Macs and iPads making inroads among consumers. Problems like bloatware are a big part of the PC's troubles.
Intel has the option of ceasing McAfee's pay-for-play strategy once the acquisition becomes final—and Intel has the financial wherewithal to sustain McAfee during any interruption in its business during the transition to competing, you know, solely on the strength of its products. Dropping the preinstallation payment model wouldn't likely impact the key mobile business that purportedly prompted Intel's interest in McAfee, anyhow.
Here's hoping the folks in Santa Clara will see that making this change serves Intel's best interests by restoring a little health to the PC market. If not, we may well have Intel to thank for more bloatware on our new PCs than perhaps any other single company.