Intel wags mangy Centrino dog by Boeing's tail

Summary:If you haven't been following my coverage of what I believe to be a somewhat disingenuous Centrino marketing campaign (on behalf of Intel), let me catch you up on the basics.  First, certain notebooks made by companies like IBM, Dell, and HP come with a pretty Intel Centrino sticker on them (not all of them).

If you haven't been following my coverage of what I believe to be a somewhat disingenuous Centrino marketing campaign (on behalf of Intel), let me catch you up on the basics. 

First, certain notebooks made by companies like IBM, Dell, and HP come with a pretty Intel Centrino sticker on them (not all of them).  From an end-user's point of view, there's nothing particularly special about these notebooks that's guaranteed to set them apart from non-Centrino notebooks.  In other words, you can find other notebooks without the Centrino sticker that go just as fast, that are just as thin and light, that have batteries that last just as long, and that have built-in wireless capability.  Those are the four official "Centrino promises" according to Intel.   In fact, Intel officials insist that the Centrino logo doesn't mean that Intel Centrino notebooks do any of those things better than other notebooks and that the logo is just a way for buyers to recognize notebooks that satisfy those four criteria. 

But second (and on the other hand), there's a bit of fifth promise.  Intel is also certifying hotspots.  A Centrino certified hotspot gets to prominently display the Centrino logo.  As a result of its testing, Intel claims that Centrino-certified hotspots are better for working over WiFi connections than your ordinary run-of-the-mill non-Centrino certified hotspots.  The fifth promise is that if you have a Centrino notebook, you'll have a better chance of connecting to a Centrino-certified hotspot than if you have a Centrino notebook and you're not in a Centrino hotspot, or if you have a non-Centrino notebook and you're in a Centrino hotspot (By the way, if you're thinking about buying a new notebook with Intel's Mobile Celeron processor in it, you should know that the Mobile Celeron processor is what disqualifies that notebook from getting the Centrino sticker).   In one of my interviews with Intel spokesperson Barbara Grimes, I was told "Part of the Centrino promise is all the testing that goes on between our products and other vendor's products and all those services."  To put a more explicit face on that process, consider this text, which appeared in a press release that was jointly issued yesterday by Intel and Connexion by Boeing:

Connexion by Boeing, a business unit of The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), and Intel(R) Corporation today announced an agreement to enhance and promote high-speed, in-flight wireless Internet service.  As part of the agreement, the companies have successfully completed compatibility testing with common Intel Centrino(TM) mobile technology-based laptop configurations, making Connexion by Boeing(SM) the first in-flight Internet service to be verified through Intel's Wireless Verification Program......."By verifying Connexion's service compatibility with Intel Centrino mobile technology and devices, we help ensure that air passengers have a consistent, high quality, in-flight Wi-Fi experience as they have come to expect and enjoy on the ground -- whether they are surfing the World Wide Web, watching live global television or connecting to a corporate VPN," said David Friedman, vice president of marketing and direct sales, Connexion by Boeing.

The connection between Centrino notebooks and Centrino hotspots and Intel's intentions are crystal clear.  One cannot read this text and not also read between the lines that Intel is trying to create the perception that you're better off working with Centrino gear in Centrino hotspots and that the more hotspots it certifies, the more important it is for you to have a Centrino notebook to get your work done in those hotspots. Since the key difference between Centrino notebooks and non-Centrino notebooks is the inclusion of an Intel-made WiFi radio, the biggest targets of what I think to be a disingenuous marketing and branding program are the manufacturers of other WiFi radios such as Broadcom and Atheros.  Once buyers start feeling as though they need a Centrino notebook to increase the likelihood of compatibility with the more than 70,000 worldwide Centrino-certified hotspots (a number Intel loves to publicize), then Intel will have beaten its competitors with deceptive marketing rather than better technology.

Here's why the marketing is deceptive.  There's no evidence to suggest that if I have a non-Centrino notebook, that I'll definitely have a more difficult time connecting in a Centrino hotspot than I would with a Centrino notebook.  The basis of that interoperability in a hotspot is not the Centrino brand, but rather great support of the various 802.11 (WiFi) standards in both the notebook computer and the WiFi access points to which those notebook computers connect when someone is in a hotspot.  Also, even if they did provide some additional guarantee compatibility that you wouldn't otherwise have in a non-Centrino hotspot, Intel's so-called Centrino hotspot compatibility tests don't get run in those hotspots everyday or even every month or every year.   Given the way network configurations change under the hood  (everything from the opening and closing of ports on perimeter firewalls to the addition or replacement of gear), a hotspot that passes Intel's compatibility tests today could easily be out of compliance tomorrow (while it still displays the Centrino logo in prominent places).  Although Intel's Grimes doesn't consider that to be a loophole in the compatibility program, she acknowledged that network configurations can change and that network operators could call Intel back for retesting (but why would they do that once the Centrino signage is hangin' around?).

The Centrino marketing campaign is also an insult to everything that open standards are designed to accomplish.  The message from Intel is that support of the official internationally accepted standards for WiFi connectivity is not enough when in reality, the whole idea -- the entire friggin' idea folks -- behind such standards is that compliance with such standards is all you should need.    To suggest that you need something beyond support of the officially accepted international standard is bad enough.  Most of the time, when vendors do this, they're adding proprietary extensions to some standard. So, at the very least, there's some additional secret sauce -- a real technology -- behind the requirement for additional support of that technology if you want certain features.  But here, there is no technology.  Just a brand and some testing.  So, to actively promote the idea that the open standards aren't good enough and that you need something that's Intel specific to really make sure it works is simply bad form on Intel's behalf.   If for example, Intel took it's testing program and dialed it back to certify hotspots as being 802.11 compatible, I'd be much more comfortable with that.  Imagine a sign that indicated that a hotspot was 802.11 compatible and then which of the core 802.11 specs (a,b, and/or g) it was compatible with, and the Intel logo to indicate that Intel had done the testing.  That would send a very clear message to me.  First, that 802.11 support is the basis of WiFi interoperability (which it is).  Second, whether or not the hotspot runs a, b, or g-rated access points (very good to know before I pop open my notebook).  Third, that a trusted brand (Intel) did the testing.  It would still be very good exposure for Intel.  But today, I can't trust that brand because of the deceptive perception I think it's trying to create.

Message to Intel: Drop the snake oil and kill the Centrino brand.  It's a tactic that's way beneath what I think the Intel brand stands for.   And hey, you might even sell more Mobile Celeron's in the process!

Topics: Intel


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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