Monday, August 23, 2010

IBM Acquired SPSS, Intel Acquires McAfee: More Problems Than Meet the Eye?

As Han Solo noted repeatedly in Star Wars – often mistakenly – I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

Last year, IBM acquired SPSS. Since then, IBM has touted the excellence of SPSS’ statistical capabilities, and its fit with the Cognos BI software. Intel has just announced that it will acquire McAfee. Intel touts the strength of McAfee’s security offerings, and the fit with Intel’s software strategy. I don’t quarrel with the fit, nor with the strengths that are cited. But it seems to me that both IBM and Intel may – repeat, may – be overlooking problems with their acquisitions that will limit the value-add to the customer of the acquisition.

Let’s start with IBM and SPSS. Back in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student, SPSS was the answer for university-based statistical research. Never mind the punched cards; SPSS provided the de-facto standard software for the statistical analysis typical in those days, such as regression and t tests. Since then, it has beefed up its “what if” predictive analysis, among other things, and provided extensive support for business-type statistical research, such as surveys. So what’s not to like?

Well, I was surprised to learn, by hearsay, that among psychology grad students, SPSS was viewed as not supporting (or not providing an easy way to do) some of the advanced statistical functions that researchers wanted to do, such as scatter plots, compared to SAS or Stata. This piqued my curiosity; so I tried to get onto SPSS’ web site ( on a Sunday afternoon to do some research in the matter. After several waits for a web page to display of 5 minutes or so, I gave up.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal. However, selling is about consumer psychology, and so good psychology research tools really do matter to a savvy large-scale enterprise. If SPSS really does have some deficits in advanced psychology statistical tools, then it ought to at least support the consumer by providing rapid web-site access, and it or IBM ought to at least show some signs of upgrading the in-depth psychology research capabilities that were, at least for a long time, SPSS’ “brand.” But if there were any signs of “new statistical capabilities brought to SPSS by IBM” or “upgrades to SPSS’ non-parametric statistics in version 19”, they were not obvious to me from IBM’s web site.

And, following that line of conjecture, I would be quite unconcerned, if I were SAS or Stata, that IBM had chosen to acquire SPSS. On the contrary, I might be pleased that IBM had given them lead time to strengthen and update their own statistical capabilities, so that whatever happened to SPSS sales, researchers would continue to require SAS as well as SPSS. It is even not out of the bounds of possibility to conjecture that SPSS will make IBM less of a one-stop BI shop than before, because it may open the door to further non-SPSS sales, if SPSS falls further behind in advanced psych-stat tools – or continues to annoy the inquisitive customer with 5-minute web-site wait times.

Interestingly, my concern about McAfee also falls under the heading of “annoying the customer.” Most of those who use PCs are familiar with the rivalry between Symantec’s Norton and McAfee in combating PC viruses and the like. For my part, my experience (and that of many of the tests by PC World) was that, despite significant differences, both did their job relatively well, and that one could not lose by staying with either, or by switching from the one to the other.

That changed, about 2-3 years ago. Like many others, I chose not to move to Vista, but stayed with XP. At about this time, I began to take a major hit in performance and startup time. Even after I ruthlessly eliminated all startup entries except McAfee (which refused to stay eliminated), startup took in the 3-5 minute range, performance in the first few minutes after the desktop displayed was practically nil, and performance after that (especially over the Web) was about half what it should have been. Meanwhile, when I switched to the free Comcast version of McAfee, stopping their automatic raiding of my credit card for annual renewals was like playing Whack-a-Mole, and newer versions increasingly interrupted processing at all times either to request confirmations of operations or to carry out unsolicited scans that slowed performance to a crawl in the middle of work hours.

Well, you say, business as usual. Except that Comcast switched to Norton last year, and, as I have I downloaded the new security software to each of five new/old XP/Win7 PCs/laptops, the difference has been dramatic in each case. No more prompts demanding response; no more major overhead from scans; startup clearly faster, and faster still once I removed stray startup entries via Norton; performance on the Web and off the Web close to performance without security software. And PC World assures me that there is still no major difference in security between Norton and McAfee.

Perhaps I am particularly unlucky. Perhaps Intel, as it attempts to incorporate McAfee’s security into firmware and hardware, will fix the performance problems and eliminate the constant nudge-nudge wink-wink of McAfee’s response-demanding reminders. It’s just that, as far as I can see from the press release, Intel does not even mention “We will use Intel technology to speed up your security software.” Is this a good sign? Not by me, it isn’t.

So I conjecture, again, that Intel’s acquisition of McAfee may be great news – for Symantec. What happens in consumer tends to bleed over into business, so problems with consumer performance may very well affect business users’ experience of their firewalls, as well; in which case, this would give Symantec the chance to make hay while Intel shines a light on McAfee’s performance, and to cement its market to such a point that Intel will find it difficult to push a one-stop security-plus-hardware shop on its customers.

Of course, none of my evidence is definitive, and many other things may affect the outcome. However, if I were a business customer, I would be quite concerned that, along with the value-add of the acquisitions of SPSS by IBM and McAfee by Intel, may come a significant value-subtract.


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