OPINION

The Most Secure Laptop, Intel Strikes Back and HP Hits the ‘Spot’

This is becoming an interesting summer. As we cook under the effects of “mythical” global warming, tech vendors have been busy getting ready for the second half of the year.

I’ve had a chance to review the multi-vendor FlexGo announcement and think there is a broader play here then we initially realized, one that could eliminate laptop theft altogether. In addition, last week we had our deep dive with Intel, which is set to come back with a vengeance in the second half. Finally, Hewlett-Packard rolled out its “Spot” technology, which could do incredible things like help me with my own critical need to manage drivers and manuals while possibly making the world a safer place for both humans and pets.

Making the Most Secure Laptop

Laptops have become a huge hole this year that private data, mostly customer financial and medical information, has been pouring out of. For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get through a month without some high profile institution losing a laptop containing information that probably shouldn’t have been on a laptop in the first place.

In the vast majority of cases the thief apparently wasn’t after the data but after the laptop itself, which suggests that finding a way to destroy a stolen laptop’s value would go a long way to help eliminate embarrassing and financially damaging laptop thefts worldwide.

In search of a solution I once again reviewed FlexGo, the program initiated by Microsoft, Phoenix Technologies, Intel and AMD. FlexGo was designed to address the needs in emerging markets for a PC leasing program. The problem they were trying to address was that a lack of financial resources in those markets meant most people couldn’t pay cash for a PC. This would result in a situation where many people would default on their payments and then part out and/or resell their PCs for illegal profits with little vendor recourse.

FlexGo required a technology which Phoenix Technology — which has been hit by a hostile takeover attempt recently — licenses as TCSubscribe. This technology not only disables a system if someone doesn’t pay, but makes it so none of the PC’s major components can be removed and used successfully as individual parts.

Extra Security

Now, let’s say you reissued this offering as a security product, one that provided the same component protection but also treated a notebook that was stolen much like one where the buyer had stopped making payments. In short, the device simply becomes a non-functioning boat anchor with no resale value because it won’t even boot up. If you can’t sell the parts or the device, why swipe it in the first place?

Coupled with decent hard drive encryption and user authentication, a laptop like this could actually be nearly as secure as a desktop PC within a secure environment. In fact, given that I’ve actually seen situations where desktop machines were stolen out of supposedly secure environments, there could be situations where a laptop like this would be even more secure than a desktop PC.

In doing some background research on this idea, I asked Phoenix staffers if they had ever thought of doing this. Not only had they thought of it, they said they have in the past demonstrated products that went well beyond what I’m talking about here. For instance, one offering would lock up if the cell phone tied to the laptop left the immediate vicinity. When Phoenix demonstrated this a few years ago, folks weren’t as concerned about data loss as they are today. It is hard to imagine a time when security wasn’t important, but this just shows how much things have changed.

With the recent hostile takeover attempt at Phoenix, clearly someone else sees a lot of value here, too. Change is clearly in the wind for this firm.

Intel Is Back

Last week Intel did its deep dive on technology. As most know, over the last few years AMD has been badly slapping Intel around. While Intel has held firm in the laptop market, largely because AMD hasn’t been competitive with battery life, AMD has taken significant share in desktop and server segments with some of the greatest gains occurring in the server space.

With its Core 2 Duo platform, Intel is now able to showcase a performance advantage over AMD, and AMD isn’t expected to be able to respond until mid-2007. Now AMD clearly saw this coming, but getting a new product to market takes time, and Intel isn’t providing much of it.

Intel’s approach appears comprehensive as it is coming to market with several initiatives it believes will drive the next wave of laptop adoption. Betting on future technologies like WiMax and improved centralized management, Intel’s arguments are compelling, but the complexity of the offering it foresees may be a problem.

Intel’s long term success or failure may now have more to do with how well it can articulate the benefits associated with its new products. This remains a problem for all vendors in the segment as we move to the second half of the year. Good marketing has often been hard to come by. Fortunately for Intel, though, Dell, HP and Apple are showing marketing promise and that could make a huge difference here.

Also, it is rumored that Apple will be very aggressive with its hardware in the second half of this year, which, for once, actually benefits Intel. At the end of last week, Intel announced it would be shifting its quad core desktop processor into 2006.

In the end, I was left thinking that, in 2007, there will be some incredibly cool Intel-based products and that Intel will do better against AMD than it has in some time, but it’s also way too early to count AMD out or to stop worrying about 2006 sales volume.

HP’s Spot

Finally, like something out of a James Bond movie, HP has created “Spot,” a little dot that can contain about half a megabyte of information in a near indestructible package that doesn’t need physical contact to work. I’m always losing manuals and drivers and other stuff that I should keep better track of, and I quickly understood how this technology could be used to solve that problem. You could simply glue one of these “spots” to the card or device that needs the data and it’s always there.

You do need to have a reader but that could easily be your cell phone — most people have their cell phones with them all the time, as I do.

However, the most compelling use would likely be for medical or identification information. Placed on dog tags, or even tagged dogs, Spot could provide critical medical history information that might not otherwise be readily available. This could in some cases help save the life of a loved one — human or otherwise.

One big concern a lot of use playing in the security space have had is the use of RFID in passports, something that has just begun. The problem with RFID is, it doesn’t contain anything more than a number and it can broadcast that number over a large area if someone has the right tool to enable this. In other words, it is likely someone could scan a crowd and determine, say, who the U.S. citizens were and who the Israeli citizens were if they had their RFID-outfitted passports with them. Since RFID doesn’t store data, it doesn’t replace the need to stamp the passport, so passports will still fill up and have to be reissued, which is an expensive process.

Spot requires near-contact proximity; there is no broadcast risk. It could be used to replace the need to physically stamp passports, which might allow a passport to be used for a longer period of time; it could even include a picture of the traveler which could make the passport eternal — you’d simply update the data. This could save cost as well as better protect the individual traveling.

RFID will still be better at what it was designed for, automated tracking, but Spot now fills a gap we didn’t really know we had, and if it is deployed, we may all be a lot safer for it.

It’s nice to think that technology is moving in a direction such that it will help make us more secure, more efficient, and safer in what is likely to be an ever more troubled world. It’s also nice to know that at least some of the hot stuff coming out this summer doesn’t have to do with climate change.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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