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Optical/IP

Yes, We Have No Banias!

Funny things, names. Take Centrino, the new brand name for Intel Corp.'s (Nasdaq: INTC) push to capture the mobility market (see Forget Banias, It's Centrino).

To the Italians, it means "they center." To Intel it means "a mobile experience." To us it's another new name with which to contend -- an empty vessel into which meaning will be poured, to use a cruddy phrase coined in the 1990s (for more on the name game, see: 50 Worst Company Names).

Intel executives say Centrino is not just the name for a chipset, but for the combination of a processor, chipset(s), and the promise of wireless connectivity via 802.11 standard technology. Basically, any Centrino product -- and we're talking small, light, portable computers here -- made by an OEM will offer inbuilt wireless LAN connectivity. Thus it is written. Centrino products will also be more suited to the mobile user by offering longer battery life than the average few hours, says Intel.

The first Centrino products are due to hit the shops "in the first half of 2003," according to an Intel spokesman, a timeline he insists has not changed.

But -- oh yes, there's nearly always a but -- Intel's European business development manager for the company's mobile platforms group, Claus Bjoernsten, is keen to point out that once you have one of these small, mobile-friendly laptop devices, Intel does not "guarantee" that a Centrino product will be able to connect to a public 802.11 hotspot.

"We will do as much as possible, through testing processes, to ensure that Centrino products will be able to connect to 802.11 access points," says Bjoernsten, "but we can offer no guarantees. We are aiming to deal with all the major issues upfront, and have been working closely with a number of companies, including Microsoft Corp. [Nasdaq: MSFT], to ensure that everything works as easily and as seamlessly as possible for the user." (See Intel & iPass Connect.)

So what will be included on launch day in terms of wireless connectivity? "Initially it will support only 802.11b when the product is launched in the middle of the first half of this year, but later on in the first half -- so, very soon after -- we will also include 802.11a. This will happen as soon as it is possible from a technical and regulatory viewpoint. There are some regulatory challenges that have prevented us from including 802.11a from day one."

Bjoernsten says Bluetooth is a global option from day one and 802.11g will be added at a later date.

On a local level, Intel has been talking to mobile operators in Europe with the aim of including connectivity to the region's GPRS networks. "That's not part of the brand promise, just something we have been doing to try and meet the likely needs of users in Europe," adds the Intel man.

Intel's role in helping to create a market for these 802.11-enabled products does not stop at its front door, either. "We will be helping to market the whole wireless LAN proposition, by helping access point operators and WLAN service providers to promote their offerings. We will be creating a lot of noise to help stimulate demand. For example, I can see Intel getting involved in special booths at airports, that kind of thing."

The potential for WLAN products will not be realized without concerted cooperation between all parties, he adds. "We have got to get this right, and no one company can do that alone. This has to be a joint effort."

And, it must be said, Intel is prepared to put its money behind WLAN companies to help develop the market, having set aside $150 million for that specific purpose (see Intel's WiFi Wad, Rainbow Unveiled, and Intel Funds WLAN VOIP Startup). Although Bjoernsten won't say how much has been invested in any particular companies to date, he says about $25 million in total has been invested so far.

He is also cautious about hyping up WLAN too much. "It's easy to get overexcited about wireless. 3G is an example of that."

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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