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Centrino: Building the Brand

One thing was clear from Intel Corp.'s (Nasdaq: INTC) ritzy launch of its first homegrown 802.11b chipset today in New York City: The company is trying to make the Centrino brand synonymous in the public mind with wireless LAN networking, in the same way that the Pentium brand has entered the lexicon as a term for desktop processors.

There is a simple reason for this, one that Intel's CEO Craig Barrett alluded to when he introduced the chipset: Sales of laptop computers are eating into Intel's core desktop market.

Making a song and dance (quite literally; the Intel presentation included squirm-worthy Chicago-style tap dancing set to rock muzak) about building wireless LAN into its notebook chipsets is one way that Intel can try to differentiate its mobile products from rivals like Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) and Transmeta Corp. and sell more silicon.

However, building the Centrino brand is much more involved than marketing the Pentium ever was. "This is bigger, I expect," says Sriram Viswanathan [ed.note: 48 points on a Scrabble™ board], who runs Intel Capital's communications fund. "In the Pentium generation the focus was so much on applications; but here, for the first time, we're having to worry about the network."

This means building out wireless hotspot network coverage (which is very patchy), as well as improving wireless LAN security and roaming capabilities on the client device and the backend. Otherwise, users will associate Centrino with little more than slow downloads and dropped connections.

Which is why Sriram has $150 million to invest in promising wireless LAN startups (see {see {doclink 29226} and Vivato's Silicon Sugar Daddy). And Intel is testing that its chipset works smoothly on major hotspot networks like the one operated by T-Mobile USA. Clearly, Intel wants potential customers to associate the Centrino brand with reliable wireless LAN connectivity.

Ken Furer, analyst at IDC wonders if the chipmaker can pull this marketing coup off. After all, Intel didn't create the 802.11b standard, and there was plenty of buzz around wireless LAN networking before it ever got involved.

"Will the Centrino brand mean anything to anyone," he questions. "It's still Pentium inside, right?" he chuckles drily (see Intel's Radio Follies for more on this).

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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