Chips and Notebooks and Wi-Fi Mindshare

By Eric Griffith

March 12, 2003

It only seems like Intel is the only newsmaker in the world of Wi-Fi this week. Other chipmakers have things to say -- sometimes about the Centrino platform and a few about their own products -- but all will probably feel the Centrino impact.

It only seems like Intel is the only newsmaker in the world of Wi-Fi this week. With events taking place around the world today to celebrate the launch of the Centrino platform -- a Pentium M (for mobile) processor coupled with 802.11b (and eventually 802.11a/b/g) -- and several cross-promotional deals with hotspot vendors and venue owners, it looks like they cornered the PR market. But other chipmakers have things to say this week -- sometimes about the Centrino platform and sometimes about their own silicon products.

Broadcom , for example, has enjoyed some major success with it's 54g brand of chips that run the early draft standard of 802.11g (the specification for which won't be ratified until this summer). According to the company, it has sold 3 million 54g WLAN chips since December -- a number the say is four times higher than the initial adoption rate of 802.11b when it first arrived.

Broadcom already had major customers with huge sales volumes (Linksys, Buffalo Technology) in its camp; that helps push the numbers up. That might pale in comparison to what Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of marketing at Broadcom, calls "a significant statement from the worlds largest PC OEM" -- Dell will soon be building 54g into its Latitude D notebook line. (Glenn Fleishman of the Wi-Fi Networking News blog points out getting 54g is only an option-- Intel's 802.11b-flavor of Centrino will be the default Wi-Fi in the D series.)

The D notebooks will actually include not just Broadcom's 54g Wi-Fi, but also soft modem and Gigabit Ethernet technology. Dell, however, will not be using the 54g name; it will still go by its own Wi-Fi brand of TrueMobile.

However, Dell is not one to ignore one of its major partners on its big day. The PC maker is not ignoring the Centrino, and will have it in a new thin, silver notebook, the Inspiron 600m for $1399 running a 1.3GHz Pentium M. It can be upgraded to support 802.11g for $20. Other notebook makers embracing the Centrino brand include Acer America, Fujitsu, HP/Compaq, IBM, Gateway, Systemax, Sony, Toshiba, and even a Tablet PC from Motion Computing (read about them at allNetDevices ).

Other chip makers with announcements this week include:

  • Agere, which last week said it was beginning work on a low cost 802.11a/b/g chipset, is working with Ubicom to crank out new reference designs for 802.11b products using a mix of the companies silicon, as part of Agere's WaveLAN portfolio of products. The comp goal is to streamline development of Wi-Fi products for the home and small office. They expect to have samples to customers by April.
  • Texas Instruments says that Hewlett-Packard (HP) will be using TI's 802.11b chips in commercial PCs sold to enterprises. The silicon will support Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX), the recently announced program by Cisco to ensure that client systems will work seamlessly with Cisco's WLAN infrastructure equipment.

  • Intersil said earlier this week its expanding security on its WLAN chips. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), the subset of the 802.11i standard coming later this year, which includes encryption and authentication, is going to be available on the PRISM GT chips for 802.11g, and PRISM Duette multi-mode chipset that supports 802.11a/b/g. Previously, Intersil had only offered WPA upgrades for 802.11b PRISM-based products.

    One of the most vocal chipmakers to the press during this week of Centrino news has been Atheros, but not about its chips. The company sent out an executive summary to the press called "Centrino vs. Pentium M: The Battle for Wireless Notebooks" which (correctly) reiterates that Wi-Fi is not truly embedded in a Pentium chip for Centrino, as some people believe. Atheros points out that the Pentium-M can be coupled with anyone's 802.11 chips, whether from Intel, Atheros, Broadcom, etc.

    However the only way for a PC maker to get the Centrino brand name on its PC or for overall marketing purposes is to use the Pentium-M with Intel's own Wi-Fi solution -- which, in the initial 11b-only release, are actually a mix of chips: an "Intel-developed dual-band MAC, an 802.11b baseband manufactured by Texas Instruments that is the result of a joint development between Intel and Symbol, and a 802.11b radio supplied by Philips," according to Intel spokesman Tom Potts.

    Of course, the reason laptop manufacturers will want that Centrino brand name is the marketing they won't have to do -- Intel's $300 million "Unwire" ad campaign should be taking care of a lot of that for them.

    A recent survey by Ipsos-Reid of 1000 people says that in the United States 41% of adults are already familiar with the term "Wi-Fi" and 13% have a home WLAN -- that's 3% of the general population. But about 40% of those who know Wi-Fi don't have a clue if they have a hotspot for public access near their home.

    The money Intel spends to expand mind-share of Wi-Fi and the branding it will put on hotspots as "Centrino Enabled" may very well cut into the plans the Wi-Fi Alliance has for labeling sites as Wi-Fi ZONES, a process that requires the venue owner to pay out to for the privilege. But Intel's marketing cash and ability to get the word out is something most industry groups such as the Alliance can only dream of having.

    Will the campaign and the "Centrino Enabled" label help push the hotspot and WLAN industry to the next level? Says Broadcom's Abramowitz: "As long as Intel keeps spending their money and we keep making it, we're happy."



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