Intel yesterday announced plans to acquire McAfee in a deal valuing the anti-virus specialist company at $48 per share for a total value of $7.68 billion - but the question remains: why?

Announced in a press release yesterday, the news took the tech world by surprise: Intel is, after all, primarily a hardware company, and has never shown an interest in the anti-virus market sector before.

Intel top dog Paul Otelini claimed in a statement that "in the past, energy-efficient performance and connectivity have defined computing requirements. Looking forward, security will join those as a third pillar of what people demand from all computing experiences," and explained that Intel wants to be at the forefront of that new wave.

The move doesn't mean that Intel will be turning into a software house, however: Intel's Rene James' reference to "hardware-enhanced security [that] will lead to breakthroughs in effectively countering the increasingly sophisticated threats of today and tomorrow" provide a clue as to where Intel is hoping to take McAfee's technology - but there are other rumours circulating, too.

Alex Vallecillo, a fund manager at PNC Capital Advisors, is quoted over on BusinessWeek as pondering whether Intel's purchase - combined with its recent attempts to push its new, lower-power Atom processor models - represents another facet of the company's assault on the smartphone market. McAfee's chief executive Dave DeWalt appears to partially confirm that particular theory, in a blog post - quoted by InfoWorld - which suggests the overall aim of the merger is for the company to be able to provide "end-to-end" mobile security.

The main point that appears to be confusing analysts is the valuation: at a 62 percent premium of McAfee's last traded stock price, the value of the deal appears way overblown with TechMarketView analyst Anthony Miller telling PC Pro that the high valuation suggests that "Intel very much wanted [McAfee] and was prepared to pay full price to get it."

Should the merger result in hardware-accelerated security packages - whether for smartphones or otherwise - Intel could get a head start into a market in which other companies are already starting to show an interest. Back in 2009 graphics card manufacturer Nvidia revealed that it was working on a CUDA-based anti-virus that would harness the power of your GPU to provide full protection without burdening the CPU, while long-time McAfee rival Kaspersky holds a patent on "a hardware-based antivirus system that effectively combats rootkits."

Whether you agree with Intel's valuation of McAfee or not, one thing seems certain: anti-virus technology is set to make the move from software to hardware, and fast.

Do you think that Intel will be able to make good use of its latest acquisition, or has the company just sunk a vast quantity of money in unreliable technology? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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