What's so fabulous about Centrino?

What's so fabulous about Centrino?

Intel’s television ads about Centrino leave me at a loss. “Untangle. Unstress. Unwire”. What is that? A motivational advert with a bizarre link to electronics? Aside from promoting bad posture what does it communicate about mobile computing?

Apparently I’m not the only one bewildered by Intel’s messaging. Even IT purchasers are scratching their heads at the truly unamazing technology aspects of Centrino. “802.11b has been around for several years in the enterprise space,” a noted industry commentator, who wanted to remain anonymous, said. “Why is Intel intent on spending so much money promoting a technology that for all intents and purposes is Wi-Fi? And since it is just Wi-Fi, why has Intel tagged it as Centrino? Is it a different standard from 802.11b? If so, is it something that only Intel has? They’ve issued a truly confusing statement to the marketplace. And one that’s certainly not compelling me to buy.”

Irvine also takes issue with Intel’s positioning of Centrino: “The new release notebooks use 1.3GHz processors which associate Centrino with budget-line laptops. Reasonably savvy users are looking for 2GHz at least. Is Intel trying to off-load a backlog of old stock?”

Public relations manager, Intel Australia/NZ, Dan Anderson, confesses that Intel has an educational gap to bridge here.

“At 1.3GHz the new Pentium Mobile chipset outperforms the Pentium 4 2.6GHz mobile processor,” he said. “The industry is used to measuring the performance of a processor by clockspeed but this is inaccurate. You can only accurately compare the clockspeeds of processors within the same family.”

It is an argument that Intel’s arch rival AMD has been making for the past two years.

Country manager, AMD, Australia/NZ, John Robinson, said Intel was behind the eight-ball in debunking the Megahertz myth of processor performance.

“AMD has been saying for a long time that performance is not about clockspeed,” he said. “It’s about what the processor can do in each clock cycle which is why we introduced the Total Performance Indicator (TPI). Buying a PC on the basis of clockspeed is like buying a car purely on the RPM (Revolutions Per Minute).”

Regardless of whether TPI was adopted as the de-facto industry standard, a widely accepted metric that measured overall processor performance was necessary, he said.

Slow start for wireless

So is Centrino aimed at the consumer or the enterprise? Firstly, it’s worth breaking the concept of Centrino down into its three elements.

“Centrino is a three-in-one. It encompasses the Wi-Fi ability 802.11b, the new Pentium Mobile chipset and a prolonged battery life in a thinner, lighter design,” Anderson said.

He uses the Internet analogy of the PC bundled with an internal modem and browser. Wireless is in its infancy and Centrino is the first bundle (it could yet go the way of Netscape).

“Intel is certainly not claiming Wi-Fi as its own,” Anderson said. “ We’re not claiming that it’s new or that we invented it. In fact, we’ve told the market we will go where the standards are and have already committed to the release of an 802.11a and later an 802.11g compatible chipset. Intel’s priority is to sell laptops or computers. We’re a silicon manufacturer first and foremost. If that means accelerating the growth of Wi-Fi than so be it.”

Both Robinson and Anderson agree that wireless connectivity will be driven by commercial enterprise because business has the most to gain from increased productivity and reduced expenditure on cabling and network infrastructure.

“The concept of a dynamic floor plan where they don’t need to run Cat5 (standard blue Ethernet cabling) or even PC Cards is the real market for wireless computing,” Irvine said.

However, there are major barriers blocking the uptake of wireless. For one, it’s still quite expensive. “The cost of wireless service providers makes it pretty impractical. It’s like mobile phones and WAN (Wireless Area Networks). It’s nice to know the functionality exists but I don’t know anyone who actually connects to the Internet via their mobile,” said Robinson.

In addition, Irvine said not all servers had the Pop3 access required for wireless remote access to the corporate network and companies that did often decided against activating it because of security concerns.

“A lot of factors have to come together to make wireless computing works,” Robinson said.

Now’s the time for network providers to be educating themselves in Wi-Fi. There will come a day when it will be essential rather than just a good idea, but until uptake is more widespread, wireless is destined to be a peripheral exercise. Consultants will pick up whatever business is not snagged by wireless technology vendors and telco providers.

The bakery franchise, Delifrance, has become one of Intel’s Centrino hotspots — areas where customers with wireless notebooks can connect to the Internet whilst lunching and sipping a latte. The hotspots, of which there are more than 90 in Sydney and Melbourne, are exercises in exposure designed to give people a taste of mobile computing. Incidentally, Delifrance’s IT contractor was sidelined for the project while Optus and Intel handled the negotiations and rollout. The pair are also footing the bill for the wireless connection which some argue gives users a slightly warped perception of the reality of wireless computing.

Product manager, notebook PCs, Acer Computer Australia, Antonio Leone, said during the transition to Centrino technology, older products would move through the channel.

“Centrino-enabled notebooks are aimed at a specific and distinct market segment, a market that up to now has been serviced predominantly by Pentium III-M based products,” he said. “With the appropriate pricing and corresponding technology differentiation, the Pentium III-M and Centrino platforms will be able to coexist until such time that Pentium III-M enabled notebooks are completely sold through. Conversely from a vendor perspective, manufacturing and distribution of Pentium III-M has and will continue to wind down, paving the way for Centrino-enabled notebooks.”

Mobility steps up the pace

While wireless is expected to be a commercially driven slow starter, Robinson said mobile computing was destined to be the fastest growing portion of the PC market over the next 12-months, driven predominantly by the consumer market.

Harvey Norman national manager, computers, Rodney Orrock, said Intel’s marketing blitz had resulted in a swing to the Centrino products on the premise of them being sleeker, smaller and lighter in design. It’s a trend towards portability rather than a desire to unwire.

“Wireless has not taken off in the minds of the SME and home consumer,” he said.

AMD released 12 new processors in March this year optimised for mobile computing.

“Eighteen-months ago AMD didn’t even have a mobile chip. Now we have 14 per cent market share and growing steadily,” Robinson said.

Harvey Norman national product marketing manager, computing hardware, Paul Schnell, said the most admirable feature of the Centrino story was Intel’s ambition to shift the focus off speeds-and-feeds to what he called “the dream” of mobile computing.

Intel was trying to muddy the waters with the consumer allowing resellers and vendors to charge fatter margins for the construction of wireless solutions.

“The staunch focus on speeds-and-feeds is bad for everyone because it drives the price down,” Schnell said. “The feature advantage benefit of Centrino acts as the teaser, the consumer is not even thinking about the processor specs and by the time they get to the price it’s a small objection.”

Harvey Norman’s May tech-guide has taken the unprecedented step of listing the Centrino product features in bold and removing the focus from the unit price.

“The prices are in there but it’s not the focus,” Schnell said. “We’ve put them at the end of the PCs feature list rather than grabbing buyers’ attention with a vigorously competitive price tag,”

He admitted, however, that the cut through on Centrino was unlikely to materialise inside 18-months.

“Notebooks only hit its straps in the last 12-months,” Schell said. “Centrino certainly hasn’t set the world on fire but the more vendors that get behind wireless the more collective advertising dollars there will be to attract people’s attention.”

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