Intel ignites wireless LAN market with IEE 802.11b boost

Look out Bluetooth here comes IEEE 802.11b, it may not roll off the tongue, but it has the backing of Intel

Intel has given its considerable blessing to the wireless LAN market by jumping in with a series of products based on IEEE 802.11b -- products it is buying from enterprise wireless specialist Symbol.

These devices are aimed at the business market, starting with prices well over the £600 mark for a base station, and close to £200 for each plug-in wireless PCMCIA-standard PC Card mobile. In other words, it is an utterly different market from the consumer space where Apple's Airport -- based on the same standard -- sells for around $300 (£180).

The reason for the high Intel price seems to be simply that neither Intel nor anybody else ever considered the need for a consumer product range. Does this mean that there are no home users? No: Intel admitted at the launch that this was anomalous.

"We can see that there's going to be a market for the take-home notebook user," said Andy Greenhalgh, director of network and comms products for Europe. "And obviously, it will make sense for those people to be able to connect to the home network with the same card, rather than unplugging it, rebooting it, reconfiguring the network protocols, and maybe loading Home RF drivers before they can get started."

Intel says it will address the problem come next July or August, with the launch of a £250 "small biz" Access Point; but until then, there seems to be a market with no bargain products, except the Apple. Even the normally low-priced Elsa hub product has a starting price of over 500 for the base station, and around £1,000 for a "starter kit" including three remote cards for satellite computers.

The reason the Apple Airport isn't walking away with the market is simple enough: Apple has provided configuration software for the access device which is (theoretically) only accessible through a Mac, on which the config software runs.

Nobody at Apple will explain why it is able to sell the product for that price when Lucent itself sells the Orinoco AP 1000 for £700. The Lucent product is virtually the same product, but it lacks the Apple extra of a 56K modem for Internet access. Sources in the networking business speculate that either, Apple sells the product at a very slim margin in order to encourage sales of the Mac, or else it may have an agreement with Lucent not to undercut Value Added resellers in the PC space.

While VARs are able to handle the problem, because they can well afford a single iBook for configuration, the rest of the PC world was forced to watch enviously -- until Jon Sevy (computer scientist at Drexell University) wrote a Java applet which configures the Airport from a browser. It may be shareware and unsupported, but it means people can install wireless networking in their homes without waiting for the market to catch up with demand.

Intel will also launch Home RF in Europe, but probably under a deal with Wannadoo (owned by France Telecom) and therefore, possibly, through Freeserve in the UK. This will almost certainly be a bundled product, sold as a broadband "black box" for ADSL or cable modem connection to the Internet. That will be some time next summer.

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