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Wi-Fi to be embedded in 95% of notebooks by 2005

Just in time for enterprise WLAN roll-outs

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Market watcher In-Stat/MDR has added to the growing weight of research reports that claim there are going to be lots of notebook PCs with built-in WLAN adaptors over the coming years.

According to In-Stat/MDR's latest report, The Wi-Fi Field of Dreams: If You Embed Wi-Fi, Infrastructure will Come, the company reckons that some 16 million Wi-Fi-enabled notebooks will be sold to businesses this year. By 2005, it says, 95 per cent of notebooks will feature WLAN support as standard.

As the old advertising tagline almost said, 'someday all notebooks will be made this way'.

Of course they will. Wi-Fi chipsets are coming rapidly down in price, driven by new entrants to the market, primarily from the Taiwan - where, incidentally almost all no-name notebooks are designed and manufactured, and most branded portable PCs are built. As we've noted before, Wi-Fi will be as commonplace - and as valuable as a differentiator - as USB 2.0, PC Card support and external monitor ports. Even In-Stat/MDR admits that "the extra cost of a Wi-Fi client will be essentially transparent to the end user".

In-Stat/MDR is more bullish on Wi-Fi integration than some of its fellow market watchers. Strategy Analytics puts the figure at 90 per cent by 2008. Forrester's figure is 80 per cent, also by 2008. SA reckons only eight million Wi-Fi enabled notebooks will ship worldwide this year, half In-Stat/MDR's forecast.

But will anyone actually use all these integrated (or 'embedded', as the researchers like to say) WLAN adaptors?

There's certainly widespread belief in the analyst community that they won't be using them to access the Internet via public hot-spots. But there seems little support for the idea that business will suddenly start rolling this stuff out on campus.

In-Stat/MDR is, perhaps, one of the few that do. Its report notes a parallel move to offer products that ease the integration of wireless networking in the enterprise, pointing to "an influx of vendors eager to take part in building out infrastructure needed to support the growing number of Wi-Fi end users".

Of course, there's no sign that there is a "growing number of Wi-Fi end users", only that more people are buying WLAN-enabled notebooks, which is not the same thing. It's like saying there's massive demand for USB 2.0 peripherals just because PC vendors sell an awful lot of computers with built-in USB 2.0 ports. Of course they do, because USB 2.0 has become part of the standard spec. you have to meet if, as a PC vendor, you're to remain competitive.

But we digress slightly. In-Stat/MDR's point is that start-ups and established players alike are nosing around the enterprise-oriented access point/switch products "as a way to ease the management, security, and configuration issues of large-scale WLAN roll-outs".

Cisco, in particular, "has an interest in being able to support and build upon its installed base". The upshot: it "may be evaluating solutions from a handful of vendors that are developing technology designed to significantly increase performance of today's standard access points. Many of these companies, such as Bandspeed and Airgo, are relying on smart antenna technology to bolster an access point's performance, coverage, capacity and throughput capabilities", says the report.

Demand may be a long time coming, however. As Strategy Analytics told us recently, enterprises in Western Europe and the US on average put WLAN infrastructure roll-outs fairly low on their current list of priorities. By and large, they're waiting at least two years before considering large-scale Wi-Fi projects.

Two years on puts us in 2005, and a world where WLAN support comes as standard in the client and enterprises have sufficient inventory of WLAN-enabled notebooks - thanks to post-downturn budget increases - to justify providing their users with wireless network access. And that, at long last, will drive WLAN usage. ®

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