Smartphones Should Replace PCs

Last Updated Sep 4, 2008 11:27 PM EDT

I've recently been running into sales professionals who are using iPhones or Treos for their CRM applications. While there are some limitations (e.g. the screens and keyboards are too small for large documents), I think that replacing PCs with smartphones is basically good idea, not just because they're easier to use, but because PCs are becoming too unstable and insecure for corporate use.

The sad truth is that the PC, thanks to Microsoft, has become a swiss cheese of security holes, and now Intel is about to make things immeasurably worse. Let me explain.

As I wrote in "How Microsoft Marketing Screwed Us All," Microsoft's corporate strategy to expand its software business resulted in PCs that crash all the time and are permeable to hackers. Microsoft's answer to the unstable environment they've created has been weak-kneed "solutions" that rely upon voluntary compliance and after-the-fact patching. These stopgap methods haven't worked in the past and they won't work in the future. You can't patch an architectural error.

But the really scary part isn't Microsoft's well-documented and persistently dangerous security failings. It's the way that Intel is now trying to fix them.

Executives at Intel are well aware (who better?) that Microsoft has created a highly unstable computing environment. Intel's marketers figure (quite rightly) that CPU chips that could "patch" some of Microsoft's glaring problems would be a substantial competitive advantage. As a result, Intel has introduced a feature in some of their CPU chips that makes it easier to "fix" computers that have failed due to inevitable software and security problems inherent in Microsoft's operating system design.

It's called "vPro technology" and it promises (according to Intel's website) "to reduce desk-side visits by remotely monitoring, diagnosing, and repairing PCs and notebooks even if they are off or if the OS is unresponsive." That sounds really handy, eh? Especially since PCs are rendered "unresponsive" so frequently. (Thanks, Bill!)

But, wait a second. Think about it. With vPro, Intel has created a wireless back door to any computer that's powered by a chip with that feature. If you get into the system through that back door and make modifications to the operating environment. And the damage could be done wirelessly -- even if your computer is disconnected and turned off!
Now, Intel engineers aren't stupid (far from it), so they've put in security features, like "provisioning," to avoid misuse. But since Intel's chip circuitry is even more proprietary (and impenetrable) than Microsoft's operating system code, we'll never know if the engineers have put in "extra" features that would allow more generalized access.

Think that unlikely? Think again. Time was you could get access to any Microsoft-powered Internet server by typing "NetscapeProgrammersAreWeenies." One of their programmers added that "feature" in a way that the other members of the team couldn't see it. A similar capability embedded within chip circuitry would be next to impossible to spot -- even by other chip designers.

Even if Intel could somehow make that certain that there's no hidden circuitry, opening a wireless back door into every system guarantees that some irate IT employee will figure out how to wreak havoc on mass quantities of corporate PCs, sooner or later. And that doesn't even account for the very real likelihood of a human error that could accidentally cripple every PC within wireless range.
Now, I've met some of Intel's chip designers. They're really, really smart guys. Best in the business. In my bones, I know that at least one designer at Intel, at some point in the vPro design process, said something like: "Uh, guys... this will cause more problems than it solves." And I'll bet that the management response was something like: "Our market share in PC CPUs is almost down to 90 percent!!!!! Shut up and do as you're told!"

And it's not just the PC. Since Macintoshes now use Intel chips, there's a possibility that they might end up with vPro technology, too. Even people who (like me) have two machines, one for Internet use and one for real work -- will be in danger. Even a Linux system running on a vPro chip would be vulnerable.

It's the insanity you can't escape.

The only way around this problem is to use smartphones for as much as your corporate work as possible. Unlike PCs, most smartphones have closed designs that are more difficult to hack and alter than the legs-spread-wide design of the PC. And smart phones are far more stable because applications can't alter the operating system. (When was the last time you got a "blue screen of death" on your cell phone?)

I can see a day in the future when most of the serious activity in the business world takes place on smartphones -- simply because the PC has too become to insecure and too hackable to be fully trusted. And, since this is probably inevitable, the place to start is with CRM, because sales data that's the lifeblood of the business world.

Stay tuned for this afternoon's video, where I'll show what CRM looks like on a smartphone.
  • Geoffrey James