Intel Outside

Will Intel’s Centrino be the tipping point for Wi-Fi?

Everyone knows a Wi-Fi evangelist. He’s that guy who bought a Linksys wireless base for his laptop last year and won’t shut up about how he can get online in the house, on the patio, at Starbucks, and outside that green building on the left at Third and Main. He keeps offering to come over and set you up, as if you didn’t have running water. Now imagine your evangelist with $300 million to burn. Would he run TV ads exhorting the world to unplug? Invest in companies to build his dream network? Unwire McDonald’s?

That’s pretty much the scope of Intel’s marketing campaign for Centrino, the company’s new wireless technology that pairs a redesigned low-power Pentium CPU with a Wi-Fi radio chip. Touting built-in wireless and a claimed battery life of five to eight hours, Intel hopes to convince consumers and businesses to blow $1,500 or more on a yet another new computer—a Centrino-powered laptop that will “unwire” computer users from their desks, in the jargon of the just-unveiled ads. Centrino’s pitch is to let notebook users jettison both the Ethernet cable and the power cord for hours at a time: Internet access through the air, anywhere.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice, people who rush out to buy Centrino laptops may find there’s nowhere in town they can get online, unless they live in downtown Manhattan or San Francisco. In that light, Intel’s marketing blitz, which includes multimillion dollar investments in other companies, seems like hawking compact discs on the promise that disc players will show up later.

Press releases touting Wi-Fi at McDonald’s finesse the fact that more than 99 percent of the chain’s 30,000-plus restaurants will still be without it next year. At Intel’s launch event in New York today, Intel CEO Craig Barrett repeatedly referred to Centrino as a “tipping point.” But his guest speaker, Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, told the audience that to reach such a point, “Wi-Fi needs to be as ubiquitous as rock ’n’ roll stations were” during the portable transistor radio revolution of the ‘60s. That’s a tall order: Wi-Fi base stations have an operating range of 50 feet to 300 feet, often less. Unlike cell-phone service, access points are run by thousands of separate personal and small-business operators under different log-on and billing schemes. Many home and business owners wisely refuse to share their networks.

The companies that deliver cell-phone service are best equipped to build nationwide Wi-Fi networks, but they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. Wi-Fi requires completely different hardware than cellular phones, with base stations in many more locations due to their shorter range. FCC regulations have made it tough to develop a wide-area base station, and the rules also prevent wireless carriers from buying Wi-Fi spectrum to lock out competitors, as they do with cellular bandwidth. Cometa, a partnership that includes Intel, AT&T, and IBM, claims it will offer wholesale Wi-Fi service to resellers nationwide, but the company’s plans have yet to advance past a few McDonald’s demo sites. Except for T-Mobile’s unwiring of 2,000 Starbucks cafes, the telcos seem to be saying: If you come, we will build it.

Intel is gambling that it has the answer to this chicken-and-egg dilemma. If we buy Centrino laptops and unwire our homes or offices, there’s a good chance we’ll become Wi-Fi evangelists ourselves, demanding it wherever we go. Road warriors already plan their itineraries around access in airports and hotels. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz understands that offering Wi-Fi in his coffeehouses isn’t about creating cybercafes, it’s about luring well-paid workaholics who have 10 minutes to get caffeinated and check e-mail—the same people who drove demand for cellular service. Can loitering teens be far behind?

If personal computers were the first stage of the digital revolution and the Internet the second, then Wi-Fi is the third stage, letting you take your computer and the ‘Net wherever you go. Once you’ve tasted it, it’s hard to go without, even if it works only at home or at the office. “It’s like having sex with my computer—I’m all over the house!” a neighbor instant-messaged me after installing her own base station. Intel expects Centrino to be a Pentium-sized hit that will sell new computers, and you can’t blame Wi-Fi evangelists for being excited. But to pull the plug and become a Wi-Fi evangelist yourself, you don’t need a $1,500 Centrino laptop. A $50 card for your current one will do.