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Acer May Have Solved a Problem Jennifer Lawrence Didn't Know She Had

By Tim Culpan
September 02, 2014 6:36 PM EDT 25 Comments
Nominee for Best Supporting Actress in "American Hustle" Jennifer Lawrence arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, 2014 in Hollywood, California.
Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
Nominee for Best Supporting Actress in "American Hustle" Jennifer Lawrence arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, 2014 in Hollywood, California.

As the tech world grapples with one of the most high-profile data breaches in recent history -- and everybody else debates the question, "to view, or not to view?" (answer: don't view) -- a nearly-forgotten PC maker is toiling away to solve a problem that most people have barely put their mind to.

Acer became famous for pumping out low-cost notebooks at a time when people still bought computers, and got a leg up in its path to global No. 2 when it went on a $1.3 billion spending spree that included Gateway and eMachines. Then the advent of Apple's iPad, the array of cloud-based services Cupertino offers, and Acer's inability to adapt to change led the Taiwanese company to its first annual losses and a renovation of its management and strategy.

Stan Shih, who founded the company in 1976 as a contract manufacturer, is chief architect of that renovation. After stepping away for almost a decade, Shih took back the reins at the end of last year and knew immediately what his company needed to do to rebuild.

Apps and cloud computing were concepts Shih had already envisioned back in 2001. A week before Steve Jobs launched the iPod, Acer unveiled MegaMicro. The idea was to let data and heavy computing power remain on central servers, and allow personal devices to be the delivery mechanism to the end user.

Those who ran Acer in the interim had failed to follow through on the plan Shih had laid out for them at the turn of the millenium, and this is among the reasons for its recent struggles, he told me in an interview in May.

"You have to leverage a mega-infrastructure and develop a scalable micro-service, which is today's app," he said when we discussed the vision he had back then of a server-app business model.

Fast forward 13 years, and Shih returned to Acer to update that vision for a more modern problem.

His latest strategy is called Build Your Own Cloud (BYOC), and is built around the idea that instead of saving data on some company's central servers, you can have that information reside on your own hardware in your own home.

Using your PC or network attached storage device at home, and BYOC-enabled apps loaded onto your Android, iOS or Windows device, information would have cloud portability while being stored privately.

With personal photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian and Selena Gomez being distributed without their knowledge, and the FBI "addressing the matter," Shih's vision now seems prescient.

Security analyst Graham Cluley put it quite eloquently last year when he was quoted by Computing as saying: Replacing all instances of the word “cloud” with “somebody else’s computer” might make organisations stop and think about the security implications of cloud computing.

Apple said in a statement today that celebrity accounts were "compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions," and that a flaw with iCloud wasn't responsible. The company said "privacy and security are of utmost importance."

Neither Shih -- who this summer again stepped down as chairman while remaining chief architect of BYOC -- nor Acer's PR team contacted me since the celebrity hacking to promote their service. In response to my request for comment last night, Acer reiterated BYOC's privacy and security features.

Shih had clearly known of the potential risk to having information stored centrally when he published an open letter in June explaining how his new vision for cloud computing is different from current commercial offerings.

"Data privacy may be at risk for other private clouds, but not for BYOC as it keeps personal or corporate data in the hands of users," Shih wrote. When BYOC was first unveiled, the concern wasn't over titillating photos of Hollywood stars falling into hackers' hands. People were focused on the much larger issue of the NSA sticking its tentacles into the servers of major Internet companies to spy on private citizens.

BYOC isn't without its risks: There's nothing that makes your PC or network attached storage device any more hack-proof than Apple's sophisticated servers, and there's no better prevention for leaked naked photos than never snapping those images in the first place.

It could also be argued that most individual users won't be as security savvy as those whose reputations depend on keeping the door locked.

By individualizing cloud services, though, hackers need to take the time to find their target, and once hacked, do it all over again for the next one. In theory, that could limit mass hacks and reduce damage as each new breach would need a new path and weakness to be exploited. "Someone else's computer," as Cluley would call it, offers a central repository for all manner of personal secrets.

For Acer, the celebrity hacking highlights that the very services Apple offers, which helped portend the PC makers slide, may also unintentionally boost its chances of a revival.

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