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In context: One of the big questions that some people have had about integrating cellular connections into PCs is what exactly are those connections going to do? Or, to put it another way, some have wondered, what’s the point? There are several important capabilities you can gain with an always connected PC, but a newly announced deal between Qualcomm and Sophos puts an interesting new twist on those opportunities.
The two companies announced that an Arm-compatible version of the Sophos Intercept X cybersecurity software application will be available on Snapdragon-powered PCs in the second half of 2021.
On one hand, it’s easy to think that while porting over a version of an existing x86-native Windows application to Qualcomm’s Arm-powered 8cx and 8cx Gen 2-based PCs is nice to have, it’s not that big of a deal. But what makes this news more interesting are the technologies being leveraged to enable this solution and how they provide a small glimpse into the future of PC software overall.
First, a bit of context. As an application that’s designed to block cybersecurity threats of all types—malware, ransomware, and other types of exploits—Intercept X, like other similar tools, is highly reliant on regular updates to be most effective. In fact, Sophos describes the product as offering a 24x7x365 level of coverage, because it’s positioned as a fully managed security service. Given that thousands of security exploits are discovered every day, that realistically means there could be multiple updates in a single day, and they might occur at any time of day or night.
The only way to ensure that a PC is available to receive updates at any time is if it’s always capable of being connected to receive those new add-ons. Sure, while many of us are at home with reasonably reliable Wi-Fi, that might be relatively easy. However, in situations where the power has gone down, or more importantly, when we start moving around again more frequently, only a cellular-connected PC can offer a guaranteed path to connectivity.
Even then, however, if a PC is in sleep mode, there’s no guarantee the updates will be delivered. That’s why this version of Intercept X will be able to use connected standby on Snapdragon-based PCs, which highlights a more smartphone-like approach that cellular-equipped PC software can enable. That, by itself, is a big step forward.
Another interesting capability also became prominent on smartphones first, but is starting to become a bigger factor on PCs as well—the extensive use of AI and AI-specific accelerators. Some of the more interesting threat detection capabilities of Sophos’ Intercept X are realized through machine learning and other AI techniques, both in the cloud-based service that works behind the scenes to power their security software, as well as on the client device itself.
In the case of Snapdragon equipped PCs, Qualcomm’s AI engine will provide acceleration of threat detection efforts of Intercept X. The good news for PCs overall is that we’re also starting to see more AI-powered software tools on x86-based machines powered by both Intel and AMD hardware and software. As with always-on connectivity, this highlights some important big picture trends we’re seeing arrive on PCs and in PC native software.
Speaking of wireless connections, a critical factor around cellular-equipped PCs is the inherent benefits that an always-connected PC offers on just, well, connectivity. Particularly now that many of us have become very accustomed to having PCs that are always connected to the web, the need to maintain that level of functionality when we start to return to the office, travel, and generally move around more is going to be essential. Though it may be easy to forget, there are lots of places where Wi-Fi is either not readily available, too slow, or not reliable. As a result, the benefits of cellular connectivity are going to quickly evolve from nice-to-have to must-have once things do start returning to normal.
The vast majority of Qualcomm-based PCs will offer the benefit of 4G or 5G connectivity built in. Likewise, Intel is about to enable some of the first PCs with 5G modems thanks to its partnership with MediaTek (see: Intel Makes Surprise Pick for 5G PC Modem Partner), x86-based, cellular broadband-enabled notebooks are about to become much more plentiful as well.
In all cases, this increased connectivity is going to make PCs more powerful, more useful, and capable of doing things they couldn’t before. That seems like a useful and important step forward for the entire PC category.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.