Intel’s New Wireless Platform: Centrino

After years of working with code-named chipsets and bundling the processors on a new platform, Intel Corp. Wednesday officially took the wraps of its latest Centrino technology. The chipset allows for wireless Internet access on laptop PCs.

Throughout a day-long launch event in Manhattan, the world’s largest maker of microprocessors is showcasing its Centrino mobile technology, which is embedded in the latest generation of smaller, lightweight laptops from manufacturers such as Dell, Gateway and HP.

Embedded with “smart” technology that powers itself down in order to consume less battery juice, the Centrino platform also comes with an 802.11b, or Wi-Fi (define)-networking card embedded in the laptops’ mini-PCI system.

Add it all up and Centrino represents the sum of Intel’s new line of products: processors as platforms that build wireless Internet access into laptop computers.

The new Centrino module represents another bold step toward wireless networking for Intel, which has already put its money and market position behind Cometa, the company it launched in December along with AT&T and IBM. Cometa is building wireless access networks for businesses to resell to consumers.

Today’s launch of Centrino, however, lifts the curtain on Intel’s centerpiece product for its wireless networking strategy to combine other technologies such as software and radio cards with Intel’s mobile Pentium processors. And it arrives as Wi-Fi access hotspots are mushrooming in hotels, coffee shops, libraries and fast food franchises across North America.

“Unwiring the PC will change the way people use computers, allowing them to communicate, be productive or be entertained wherever and whenever they want,” said Craig Barrett, Intel’s chief executive officer. Barrett is the first technology executive among many slated to take the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan Wednesday to ballyhoo the product. The events will be capped by a concert Wednesday evening by the BareNaked Ladies.

Centrino marks the “first time we’ve put a combination of technologies under a single brand,” he said. “This breakthrough innovation, together with industry-wide investment and WiFi hotspot deployments, brings new computing and communications capabilities to businesses and consumers, adding value to mobile PCs.”

Centrino is a combination of Intel’s Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset family and its PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection card that is built into the laptop near the motherboard. Intel said all the components are optimized, validated and tested to work together with mobility in mind.

For example, the PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection card works with 802.11b WiFi certified access points, and also supports security and encryption protocols for wireless LANs including 802.1x, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and VPN suppliers.

Intel also said it would be software upgradeable to support WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), a developing encryption protocol to correct issues in WEP, and that it has partnered with Cisco to integrate Cisco’s networking security extensions for wireless LANs (called LEAP), which will also be software upgradeable.
“It’s Intel’s biggest announcement of the year from a product standpoint, and in terms of importance,” said Peter Kastner, director of research at technology research firm Aberdeen Group. “This is a major new architecture platform for Intel, which has huge long-term ramifications for the computing industry,” especially for notebook and laptop PCs.

Kastner estimates that about 20 percent to 22 percent of PCs sold worldwide today are notebooks. Aberdeen Group expects that percentile to grow to 30 percent over the next five years (including consumer and business markets domestically and internationally). A key driver of those sales, he said, will be wireless Internet-access hardware built into the devices.

“Centrino will be immediately most attractive to road warriors because of its much improved battery life,” he said. “The chipset is smart, the (Wi-Fi) radio is smart, the processor cycles down and the graphics card can cycle down, all of which reduces power consumption,” Kastner said. Intel expects the Centrino line to help improve laptop battery lifecycles to about five hours from the current two- to three-hour range.

And by bundling its microprocessor with other components, Intel is able to get more revenue compared to revenues from laptops that are just embedding its Pentium mobile processors alone, he said.

But rivals that build wireless networking chipsets, however, point out that Intel is building into laptops a platform that is locked into the 802.11b wireless networking standard — at a time when other chipmakers are building multi-mode wireless chips into laptops that also run on 802.11a and 802.11g wireless networking protocols. The a and g versions, for example, can operate on higher bands of spectrum where there is less clutter than the unlicensed 802.11b range.

“The Centrino brand is a bundle of Intel’s Pentium M and other chips, and a little daughter card that supports wireless communications,” said Rich Redelfs, president and chief executive officer of wireless LAN chip maker Atheros Communications. The company’s multi-mode chipsets are going head-to-head with Intel’s Centrino.

“The beauty of multi-mode (802.11 protocols) is you don’t need to worry which flavor of 802.11 is in your hotel, or your office,” said Redelfs. With multi-mode chipsets that cover all the 802.11 protocols – a, b or g, “the laptop just looks for the fastest connection.”

Intel is expected to eventually roll out Centrino lines that support multi-mode networking protocols. And its launch includes marketing agreements with partners that have already set up 802.11b-compatible networks where the “Centrino inside” logo will be flashed. They include Borders Books, Hilton Hotel Group and McDonalds . Intel is also working with T-Mobile, which supplies the Starbucks coffee chain with 802.11b wireless access at select locations.

And Redelfs also counts himself among partner and rival companies alike that are watching today’s splashy launch of Centrino. As it bobs into the market on Intel’s $300 million marketing campaign, it carries the hopes of other sectors that it will drive demand for related technology such as chips for wireless access spots, networking hardware and security software.

Intel said the Centrino laptops are now available from computer makers such as HP, Dell and Gateway. System pricing is in the range of about $1,399 to $2,000 for the Wi-Fi embedded notebook PCs.

“The new brand and all about the sum of the parts, that are designed to work together as a unit, as opposed to just a processor or chipset,” said Aberdeen’s Kastner. “Intel is supplying the ingredients and lighting a match that will dramatically increase both the use of notebooks and mobile computers in the office, but also in society.”