Love it or hate it, Intel's Centrino is absolutely central to the burgeoning Wi-Fi industry. And mostly, that industry loves it. Intel's biggest marketing campaign since the Pentium has done more than anything else to make people aware of the joys of surfing in a coffee shop.
Even Intel's competitors love Centrino. The chip giant has a colossal market share and presence, has legitimised the market, and still lets the rest of the world steal a march by getting to new technologies first. When Intel announced it would offer 802.11g, the fast technology on 2.4GHz band after years of saying 802.11a was better, its competitors claimed, with some justification, a two year lead.
Although for most practical (or cynical) purposes, Centrino is a great big marketing programme, with lots of dollars for putting the Centrino label in adverts, and the major effect of persuading the industry that all new laptops should have Wi-Fi included by 2007.
What is the direction of the technology? And how will it shape Wi-Fi practice over the next few years?
More efficient chips
Although it's a standard for Wi-Fi laptops, the "secret sauce" in Centrino is not the Wi-Fi, it's the processors - mobile versions of Intel's chips, designed to use less power, so that untethered laptops go on working for longer.
And they work. A Centrino laptop will go on working for maybe twice as long as one using previous Intel chips.
For most of us, that's all we need to know. For others, who want to unravel Intel's pantheon of codenames for forthcoming processors, Centrino systems will have the "Dothan" version of Intel's mobile-centric Pentium M processor in the second quarter of this year. Smaller manufacturing processes will lead to more powerful chips and the speeds will creep up: in 2005 there will, apparently, be 2GHz processors in some Centrino-branded systems.
Alongside that, towards the end of this year, Centrino gets new supporting silicon in the chipset codenamed Alviso, but to be called 915GM, 915PM and 915PML when delivered.
The Wi-Fi support is more interesting. Intel already has parts that support the 802.11a 802.11b and 802.11g flavours of Wi-Fi, and these will be part of the Centrino brand. The a/b/g combined part is codenamed Calexico and will be launched as PRO/Wireless 2915ABG in the second half of this year. Currently, the b/g part is the PRO/Wireless 2200BG. Centrino also has the option of an 802.11a/b part but analysts Gartner Group are cautious, saying that you might as well wait for the 802.11a/b/g part.
Intel's site has details of its PRO/Wireless parts
Security and the rest
Wi-Fi security is currently evolving from the insufficient WEP (wired equivalent privacy), through the interim standard, WPA to the final, ratified security standard, 802.11i. (see our explanation).
With the 2200BG, Centrino is on WPA version 1. When WPA version 2 arrives (including EAP and 802.1x) and the finalised 802.11i , these can be installed as firmware downloads. The 2200ABG part will support 802.11i, in the second half of 2004.
Other extras include Intel's PROSet, configuration tools to do the things you would expect to do with a Wi-Fi system, remembering previously used setups and monitoring your connection.
While Intel's systems are always built with Windows in mind, the chip giant keeps showing signs of keeping Redmond on its toes, by toying with open source alternatives. Intel will release a Linux driver for Centrino, eventually in open source form.
Intel is also working closely with Cisco, to support the latter's Cisco Compatible Extensions, security additions to Wi-Fi. While this may give some benefits in an environment based on Cisco's Aironet access points, these are probably not enough to tie yourself rigidly to one network vendor.