Cisco and Intel: the alliance the wireless world should fear

WiFi Alliance rival

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The announcement says "Intel and Linksys." But you have to remember that these days, Linksys is owned by Cisco. Together these two giants, Intel and Cisco, are setting up their own little rival to the WiFi Alliance. Well, not so little, maybe...

The first stage is "a technology and marketing program to improve the experience of setting up and operating wireless networks in homes and small offices" using Linksys wireless routers and access points and Intel Centrino mobile technology.

There is nothing, at this stage, about what some fear to be the real threat to all rival suppliers of access points and makers of wireless adapter cards - no mention of Cisco Client Extensions, or CCX. But if you can't see the path from here to there, you can't be concentrating.

The announcement is seen by Paul Otellini, Intel president and chief operating officer, as crucial to the corporation's future. Otellini himself made the launch presentation, saying that "the rapid adoption of Intel Centrino mobile technology shows that mobile users support Intel's vision of mobile computing and faster, simpler access to the Internet."

He elaborated: "Intel Centrino mobile technology and Linksys wireless products are a powerful combination in the effort to broaden the use of wireless broadband."

The question is whether anybody else will get a look in.

Initially, Intel is conducting engineering testing or "verification" of Intel Centrino mobile technology, to make sure that it works correctly with Linksys wireless access points and routers that are currently available. It's described as "joint engineering and co-marketing work."

Here's where the WiFi Alliance should start to worry: the verified Linksys products "will be identified with a 'Verified with Intel Centrino mobile technology' label on the packaging to help inform consumers that the Intel and Linksys products have been tested to work together," says the joint announcement.

That, in a nutshell, is what the WiFi Alliance has taken upon itself to do for the industry. The question it faces is this: can it continue to make the WiFi logo the important one? or will people look, instead, for the Centrino and "Verified with" badge?

There are those who have ridiculed this idea. They say that rival companies like Agere and Intersil have dominated the market, and won't be pushed aside; and that there have been few successes in marketing to match the WiFi promotion. And they're right! - but the future may be different. Already, things are moving.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of the arrival of Linksys into the market with the high-speed new pre-standard (now 802.11g) at the end of last year. Rival suppliers of access points say that their figures show that sales of access points into the home rose enormously - according to US Robotics, by as much as five times.

In the same way that Linksys dominates today's domestic market, so Cisco rules the roost in the corporate space; and now the two have joined together, they pretty much own the access point business.

And Intel, while still just "one of the players" in the client wireless business, and still buying its wireless chips from others, has already said what it plans. It plans to incorporate the client circuitry, not just in notebooks, but also in its processor chips.

The verification effort is under way, and verified Linksys products will be available at retail locations throughout Europe starting in September.

Intel and Linksys have also committed to work on new ways to maximise wireless performance and enhance wireless connectivity as part of the program. This includes plans to develop technology that will allow notebook PCs based on Intel Centrino mobile technology to detect the presence of Linksys wireless products and configure them with minimal effort by the end user. Today, notebook PCs are manually configured to interact with a wireless network. Work is under way to enable Intel and Linksys products with the advanced configuration technology in 2004.

"I truly believe that partnerships are one of the keys to the future success of the networking industry — benefiting not just partner companies, but the end customer with quicker access to technologies, greater innovation and ease of use," said John Chambers, president and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems, Inc. "The combination of Intel, Linksys and Cisco technologies helps to fuel wireless adoption in the home and enterprise markets, which are major areas of growth for the industry."

Neither Intel nor Cisco has officially embraced the 11g standard (giving 54 megabits per second instead of the normal 11 megabits that 11b offers at 2.4 GHz). But that is due to be announced, probably jointly, towards the end of summer.

It's not all going to be plain sailing. The hype says it is. According to the spin machine, Centrino "represents Intel's best technology for mobile PCs" and it has already been "verified interoperable with hotspot service providers world wide" and "Linksys wireless access points and routers deliver seamless, trouble-free wireless broadband connectivity in home or small business environments using wireless LAN (802.11 a, b and g) technology."

In reality, Centrino has been just another wireless client, so far, and many people have seen no reason to buy the full Centrino package. The Pentium M processor, which is part of Centrino, works just as well without the rest of the package. And the wireless which Intel currently provides is just another 11b client, while many users (at home, certainly! - not necessarily in the office) want the faster 11g performance, and are prepared to buy the plug-in Linksys card.

And similarly, the "seamless, trouble-free" wireless broadband hasn't been the same experience for all users. Retail stores say that the problem is one of installability; they say that returns of "up to 40%" in some stores are reported, by users who simply can't work out how to get networking started.

The plan for the future is to make this hype real: to make it a simple plug-in-and-go system where all the user does is switch on the power, plug in the broadband cable, and log in. "Linksys and Intel have committed their relationship to broaden innovative wireless offerings, while improving the user experience for home and small office users," is the way the partners put it.

Since January, Linksys and Intel announced several joint development projects on wireless products using Intel's IXP4xxx family of network processors featuring Intel XScale architecture.

There will be more... and the WiFi Alliance will find it has a real rival for credibility on its hands. And Alliance members will find themselves increasingly out in the cold.

The next stage, however, will be the move into the office. Cisco Client Extensions, or CCX will become a requirement for commercial deployment, if Cisco has its way. And if Intel builds CCX into Centrino - and it will - then it's really hard to see what the WiFi Alliance can do to preserve itself, or its members.

Because one thing is utterly clear: Cisco is not going to let anybody else build access points with CCX technology. Except, of course, its new subsidiary, Linksys...

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