Despite fears that a deal between Cisco and Intel might split the Wi-Fi world, creating standards and brands that duplicate those of the Wi-Fi Alliance, analysts and service providers welcome the prospect of easier Wi-Fi.

Linksys, the consumer and small business network company that Cisco purchased in June, is to team with Intel on Wi-Fi products. The two companies promise to make it easier for consumers and small businesses to set up wireless LANs. While wireless service providers welcome the prospect of easier Wi-Fi, critics worried that the partnership could split the wireless world, promoting Cisco technology and Intel’s Centrino brand in competition with the standards and brands of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

“Together these two giants, Intel and Cisco, are setting up their own little rival to the Wi-Fi Alliance,” said Guy Kewney, of NewsWireless.Net. The partnership could rival the Alliance on two fronts: by promoting the proprietary Cisco Client Extensions (CCX) as a rival standard, and setting up the Centrino badge as a rival compatibility brand to the Wi-Fi Alliance’s own label.

Network analysts are more cautious: “Linksys has the highest profile of all access point manufacturers and is now owned by the highest profile network provider. Maybe it was just the first obvious choice for Intel to work with,” said Richard Webb of Infonetics Research. “But, if Buffalo or Netgear ask for a similar deal, what would the response be?”

The Wi-Fi Alliance declined to comment until Linksys and Intel publish more information.

Intel has not announced any other partners on similar terms, but the company stressed in a conference call that the partnership is not exclusive. However, the deal does seem to duplicate what the Wi-Fi Alliance does. “Why have this when you already have the Alliance in place?” asked Webb. “That is the body that organises interoperability.”

“Wi-Fi Alliance tests to the spec. We go beyond it,” said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president of Intel mobile platforms group.

Wireless service providers welcomed the pair’s efforts to make it easier to connect to wireless LANs. “Connecting to Wi-Fi is kind-of easy right now, but because it is kind-of easy, you kind-of don’t do it,” said Mark Skingley of UK wireless provider Connect Spot. If a laptop can release its IP address automatically and look directly for an address from a hotspot, with minimal user intervention, more people will use Wi-Fi he said. “They are not precluding anyone else from improving their own software,” he said. “That’s life.”

In announcing the partnership, the companies promised that Linksys products would carry a “Verified with Intel Centrino mobile technology” label to inform consumers that the products would work together. The use of CCX is still an unanswered question, but the label looks like overlapping with the Wi-Fi alliance’s own.

Cisco vice president Charlie Giancarlo went further, promising that future Centrino notebook PCs will detect Linksys wireless products “with minimum effort”. The process of getting online will be more automatic, and easier, he said, though this would only apply if the devices involved were Linksys products and Centrino laptops.

Linksys has made a big impact on low-end Wi-Fi with the now-standard 802.11g and is now backed by the muscle of Cisco. So far Cisco is operating Linksys as a separate business – it operates in the consumer sector, which is different from Cisco’s home market in business.

Linksys has already worked with Intel. It uses Intel chips in its access point and the two companies have jointly developed a Wireless Digital Media Adapter, due to launch in the UK this month. It shares media content such as music, images and video files between the user’s TV and stereo, using 802.11b. Other Linksys wireless products due to arrive in the UK include an 802.11b wireless video camera and an 802.11g wireless cable gateway.

The announcement also puts Intel’s forthcoming 802.11g launch in the spotlight. So far Centrino products only operate at the slower 802.11b specification, with 802.11g promised.