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New Intel chips let managers turn on powered-off PCs for repairs, updates

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Your work computer just suffered a major meltdown. Maybe the operating system failed, or a virus crashed the hard drive.

Either way, your employer can now tunnel into your crippled machine remotely by communicating directly with the chips inside it, allowing authorized managers to power up and repair turned-off PCs within the corporate network at virtually any time.

The technology – which Intel Corp. introduced last year to rave reviews from computer professionals – represents a fundamental change in the way work PCs are repaired, updated and administered.

Now the world’s largest chip maker is studying how to bring the same technology to the consumer market.

Santa Clara-based Intel envisions consumers one day signing up for a service that allows their Internet providers to automatically install security upgrades and patches, whether the PC is turned on or not. Once they return to their computers, users would then get an alert with a detailed record of the fixes.

In some ways it’s the computer-industry equivalent of General Motors Corp.’s OnStar service, which allows an operator in a call center to open your car doors if you’ve locked the keys inside.

Intel is hoping consumers will decide that the convenience of having a round-the-clock watchdog outweighs the obvious privacy and security concerns raised by opening a new remote access channel into the PC.

Digital-privacy experts aren’t worried about the use of such technology in the workplace, where employers may peek into any worker’s machine at any time. But advocates said the same technology might raise questions about the level of control consumers are willing to cede to keep their machines running smoothly.

”It’s a lot of power to give over to someone – people are storing a large portion of their lives in their computers,” said Seth Schoen, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ”My main concern would be to make sure consumers knew who they were giving access to, and what kind of access they’re giving.”

Intel’s Active Management Technology only allows technicians to see a small amount of mundane but critical information, mostly configuration and inventory data. Only authorized IT managers already inside the corporate network can access the computers, and they cannot rifle through an employee’s files, or see the Web browsing history, or gain access to other personal files, Intel said.

They can, however, install missing or corrupt files, and even reinstall the entire operating system by having the system boot from a remote drive on the network.

”The technology itself is privacy-neutral – it doesn’t know who you are, it doesn’t really care what you do,” said Mike Ferron-Jones, director of digital office platform marketing at Intel. ”Any policy decisions about what a user can do in a business environment with their PC, those are up to the business owner. (Active Management Technology) does not facilitate those policies in any way.”

The top two personal computer makers, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., and retailers such as Best Buy Co. Inc., also offer remote tech support services for consumers – if the machines are switched on and plugged into the network.

Intel’s technology opens up a new level of access.

Intel’s AMT works by keeping a communications chip inside the PC active at virtually all times, as long the machine has battery or AC power.

Once an IT manager reaches out to that chip, it contacts the chipset inside the same machine, which jolts to life and can access certain core data stored on a memory chip that retains information even when the computer is off. Chipsets are responsible for sending data from the microprocessor to the rest of the computer.

The technology is only available in desktops with Intel’s vPro branding and laptops with the Centrino Pro branding. Those brands indicate that the PCs have a full package of Intel chips, and workers with those computers should assume their machines are being monitored in this manner.

Intel said about 250 business worldwide with between 1,000 and 10,000 PCs each are now using the desktops. Laptop sales numbers are not yet available as those machines were made available only about three weeks ago.

Richard Shim, an analyst with market researcher IDC, said IT managers have been asking for the technology for some time to speed their service calls and save the company money.

By giving them a uniform and reliable way to access their fleet of computers, the technology lets system administrators more easily manage widely dispersed machines from different manufacturers, Shim said. That lessens the need for the patchwork of hardware and software they have been relying on to perform some of the same tasks.

”It will help automate the process, and any time you can automate something in technology, it’s a blessing,” he said. ”It addresses pain points that are common to all IT managers.”

In one study of companies already using Active Management Technology, desk-side visits for hardware problems dropped 60 percent and trips for software glitches fell 91 percent.

”They’re huge numbers – for us it’s extremely costly to send a field technician out,” said Matt Trevorrow, vice president of infrastructure services for Electronic Data Systems Corp., a provider of information technology outsourcing services that uses the new Intel technology and is offering it to customers. ”It all comes back to getting the end user back to being productive.”

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