Intel's Wi-Fi campaign still includes disingenuous Centrino pitch

At a recent bankers' conference, David Berlind found Intel's Wi-Fi presentation to be so misleading that he added two new slides to my own PowerPoint show: one for the truths and another for the untruths that continue to populate Intel's pitch of Centrino
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

For a journalist, it's always good to be a fly on the wall when a representative from a big company like Intel is making his or her pitch to potential customers.

At major trade shows, conferences, and briefings, such vendor presentations tend to be sanitized for consumption by the press who keeps a close watch on its BS-meter as each word emerges from the speaker's mouth, However, at smaller regional events, where the press isn't expected, the vendor presentations will sometimes stretch the truth. While this is unfortunate for the attendees to such events, it's an opportunity for journalists in low-key attendance to do a bit of FUD-busting., Last week's Technology Seminar for the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) in Pittsburgh did not disappoint.

I didn't even know the CSBS existed until its vice president Roger Stromberg asked me to give it a presentation on mobile technologies. Founded in 1908, the CSBS' membership roster reads like the who's who of banking regulation implementation and enforcement for all 50 states and four territories. These folks are so important to the nation's financial backbone that they have a secret code providing them carte blanche access to the telecommunications infrastructure during emergencies like 9/11. On that day, many banks reached out to the state supervisors requesting permission to close. In some cases, that permission was denied because the supervisors, recognizing that US currency is backed solely by confidence in the system (not by gold or silver reserves anymore), knew their responsibility was to maintain confidence. This is not a group to stretch the truth with.

But, if you ask me that's exactly what Intel business development manager Gary Interdonato did. I found his presentation on Wi-Fi and Centrino (which went right before mine) to be so misleading that I modified my own PowerPoint presentation to lead with two new slides: one for the truths and another for the untruths in his Centrino pitch.

Here, are the truths and untruths I heard from Interdonato One important note. Although the quoted materials are not Interdonato's exact words, I'm confident that they are an accurate summary and reflect the points that Interdonato was trying to make in an effort to convince CSBS attendees that Centrino is a must-have platform:

Intel Truth #1: "In order for a computer to qualify as being a Centrino-based system, it must have three components: an Intel Pentium M processor, Intel's chipset designed to work with that processor, and an Intel 802.11b radio." This is an important point in the scheme of any discussion about the Centrino platform. It must have all three components.

Intel Truth #2: "The Pentium M was re-engineered from the ground up with mobility in mind." True: In looking to come up with a new, extremely power-sensitive platform, Intel launched the Pentium M..

Intel Truth #3: "Although the 802.11b standard for Wi-Fi is rated at 11 mbps, 6 mbps is a more realistic expectation." Indeed, 802.11b's rating is 11 mbps and it knows how to throttle back to 5.5 mbps. While the actual user experience is highly dependent on many factors, 6 mbps is a reasonable expectation in many situations. But it will be better or worse for some people.

Intel Truth #4: "The Pentium M is so revolutionary, that we expect that it will start to appear in blades." Bold predictions like this, when they come true, give the speaker credibility. Considering that HP actually announced it would be doing this in April, however, I'm not sure how bold a prediction it was.

Intel Truth #5: "Don't take my word for it. Intel is biased." Yes,, and then some. The context of this comment had to do with Interdonato's discussion of benchmarks and how MobileMark 2002, the benchmark behind some performance data that he was showing on a slide was not generated from a benchmarking program of Intel's own making, but rather from a third party. Sure, the source of the benchmarks may be from a third party, but Intel's presentation of them is somewhat disingenuous.

Now, for the untruths.

Intel Untruth #1: "All this talk about how insecure wireless networks are is overblown. Virtual private networking (VPN) technology is what [Intel] uses to secure its wireless network. For example, at a recent event, we set up a Wi-Fi network and all of the Intel employees used a VPN. Intel didn't care if anyone else got on to access the Internet. Since all the Intel traffic was over a VPN, it didn't matter."

This comment left the audience with the impression that VPN technology is enough to secure a wireless network; that you shouldn't be too concerned if freeloaders hitch a ride on your Wi-Fi network; and that as long as your traffic is encrypted by the VPN technology, you're OK. This is patently false.

VPN technology is obviously required when you're accessing corporate resources through a public hotspot. But it's a mistake to suggest that VPN encryption provides enough security for the Wi-Fi network at your offices, or that you shouldn't be too concerned if others can get onto your network. For starters, even Interndonato noted that you can only expect about 6 mbps of bandwidth. I find it highly implausible that Intel doesn't care if other people freeload on this scarce resource. I'm willing to bet that, if you drive by Intel's offices and you find a Wi-Fi signal that you can freeload on, it's not Intel's internal corporate network. If it is, the company's IT department is making a big mistake.

Intel Untruth #2: "When you see Centrino, you know it is going to work."

Back when Intel was preparing to launch Centrino, the company told me how Centrino was going to be a brand that guaranteed interoperability because of extensive testing. Even Intel's Web site says "You can use your Intel Centrino mobile technology-based notebook at any hotspot, but locations in our hotspot finder have been verified by service providers for Intel Centrino mobile technology." When I first heard the pitch, I thought it highly unlikely that Intel could guarantee such flawless interoperability. It wasn't long until Intel had to fix its first glitch.

In addition, the fine print on Intel's Web site says, "Wireless connectivity and some features may require you to purchase or download additional software, services or external hardware." OK, so perhaps Centrino puts the building blocks of interoperability in place. But you might need more to finish it off.

In some instances, because of local security policies, you might be able to interoperate, but you may not be able to get very far as I found with a recent experience at the New York City Hilton where the ports for setting up a virtual private network were blocked (something neither Intel nor Centrino can do anything about).

Another caveat Intel needs to add to its fine print is that Centrino will work in any hotspot, as long as the hotspot isn't based on 802.11a. Intel hasn't yet released a version of Centrino that supports 802.11a. Interoperability with 11a-based hotspots was originally planned for the third quarter of this year, but the company recently announced ] that its combination 802.11a/802.11b part would be delayed (thus delaying interoperability in 802.11a hotspots). At the CSBS conference, Interdonato made an excuse for the absence of Intel's support of the faster wireless technologies, saying that the 802.11a's 54 mbps cousin - the 802.11g standard --- was ratified ahead of schedule which caught Intel by surprise. Intel and Interdonato must not be following the news very closely. In September 2002, well before Centrino was even announced, News.com reported that the IEEE intended to finalize the 802.11g standard in May of this year. In addition, the 802.11a standard has been around since 1999. With 802.11a support just now coming out, I wonder what Intel's excuse is for being so late to that game?

Intel Untruth #3: "Centrino was designed from the ground up for mobility."

Actually, for the CSBS folks, I labeled this as a half-truth.. The idea behind the Centrino Platform's design is, indeed, mobility. What other purpose would be served by the combination of a battery-conservative processor, the chipset that goes with it, and a wireless radio? What makes this a half-truth is the context in which the statement was made. The implication was that the three components of the Centrino platform have been optimized to work together in a way that delivers benefit to the mobile worker in ways that couldn't be otherwise achieved. This is probably the biggest falsehood that's connected with Centrino and one that I've written about before.

"Centrino" is not technology. Centrino is a brand (with a clever marketing plan) devised by Intel to make sure that an Intel radio (instead of an offering from one of Intel's competitors such as Philips or Atheros) is packaged with every Pentium M the company sells. In fact, the Intel radio is no more optimized to work with the Pentium M than any other 802.11 radio that a computer manufacturer like IBM, Dell, or HP might choose to package with it. The unique benefits of the Centrino platform can be attributed to the Pentium M and its chipset, and it is therefore those two components that should interest you when buying a new notebook computer. But you shouldn't feel as though you're short-changing yourself if the computer you buy isn't a Centrino system. You're only short-changing Intel, which was hoping to earn incremental revenue by closely associating the benefits of the Pentium M with the name "Centrino."

Intel Untruth #4: "Look at my system. It's an IBM T40. I've been giving this presentation to you on battery power and it still has 69 percent of its battery left. What's inside? A Centrino."

There's nothing patently false about this statement. Interdonato had an IBM ThinkPad T40. It had 69 percent of its battery left. I can only assume that he was being truthful when he said it was a Centrino-based system (IBM offers the T40 in non-Centrino models as well --- I'm testing one). But the implication he was making was that the T40's battery performance could be isolated to the presence of the Centrino platform in the T40 when, in fact, that battery performance is attributed to a bunch of factors, none of which are the Centrino. Two of those factors are the Pentium M and its chipset (two-thirds of the Centrino package), but, the same or maybe even better battery performance can be had if the Pentium M and its chipset were paired up with another radio. Not only that, but the battery performance can hardly be isolated to just those parts. Many more factors --- including display size and brightness, hard drive, and presence of other power consuming components (CD drives, PC Cards, etc.) --- contribute to a system's overall battery performance. In fact, looking at the fine print once again on Intel's Web site, it says, "System performance measured by MobileMark 2002. System performance, battery life, wireless performance and functionality will vary depending on your specific hardware and software configurations."

This footnote appears under a benchmark chart that is also misleading. As indicated by the legend, the chart compares the performance and battery life of a Centrino system to a Pentium 4M system. Never mind the fact that the two systems had different video controllers, different amounts of video memory, and different battery capacities; the more legitimate comparison should have been between two identically configured Pentium M systems: one with the Intel radio (thereby a Centrino system) and one with a competing radio. Either IBM or Dell could have made this easy for them since both companies offer identically configured Centrino and non-Centrino systems.

During a telephone interview after the CSBS event, Intel spokesperson Barbara Grimes staunchly defended Intel's Centrino pitch. "Centrino is as much about driving widespread acceptance and adoption of wireless technologies as it is about what customers get when they buy a computer with the Centrino platform inside," she said.

Grimes also stood by the Intel party line regarding what customers get when Centrino is inside. " "We believe the customer does get some benefit from Centrino versus other offerings because we do a higher level of validation with third parties' products and services," she said. "For example, you know that when you go to T-Mobile hotspot, it has been tested under Intel's wireless verification program and chances are that it will be a smooth user experience. Part of the Centrino promise is all the testing that goes on between our products and other vendor's products and all those services." That may be. But so far, I've connected to dozens of hotspots, and it was support for the 802.11b standard, not a Centrino-based system, that got me on the network.

At least the "widespread acceptance and adoption" part of Grimes' comments does hold some water. Intel's Craig Barrett has been extremely critical of the status of the United States' public network infrastructure, saying that the country is far behind others when it comes to the penetration of high-speed Internet access. In the context of that discussion, perhaps Centrino and the huge marketing budget behind it is Intel's way of addressing that problem. Without much influence over the wired infrastructure, Barrett may regard wireless as his last resort.

Even so, the Centrino pitch could use some cleaning up. Hopefully, after I changed the content of my presentation on mobile technologies, the members of the CSBS will listen to what vendors have to say in the future with a much more discriminating ear. Now that I've shared the experience with you, you can do the same.

Do you have any horror stories of shameless promotion to share with your fellow readers? Use ZDNet's TalkBack, or write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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