04:35 AM

Intel's Centrino And How It Sparked The WiFi HotSpot Revolution

March - 2003: photo shows inauguration of first airport WiFi hotspot - San Francisco (SFO).

By Intel Free Press

Coffeehouses, fast food joints, airports, hotels and college campuses were some of the first public places to offer it, and today WiFi is available on trains, planes, in taxicabs -- almost everywhere, including inside millions of homes around the world.

It wasn't always this way.

Few technologies in recent decades have caught on and become as ubiquitous as quickly as WiFi, but few may remember that things really didn't take off until 2003 when it became a standard feature of laptops with Intel's Centrino mobile technology.

WiFi, short for "wireless fidelity," was derived from its technical specification IEEE 802.11b, a protocol that started evolving in the early 1990s. Centrino was the name Intel gave to its mobile platform that included a new low power processor code-named 'Banias' and a bundle of chips that included Wi-Fi.

"Intel's Centrino effort represented one of the great technology inflection points in the market," said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. "It drove us from a largely wired computer world to one that freed us from those cables and allowed our PCs to roam along with us.

"WiFi was struggling in the market because it was relatively hard to set up, unreliable and little understood. It took Intel and a massive push behind Centrino to address these shortcomings and make it into the standard it has become today," Enderle said.

In 2003, WiFi was not widely available or understood by most consumers, and Intel knew it had some work to do to promote the concept as part of a massive launch in March of that year. The company had an entire team charged with working with partners and "validating" hotspots around the world. Armed with $300 million and scores of dealmakers, Intel unleashed a worldwide marketing program to accelerate the mobile computing concept and promote the new Centrino brand. Wired Magazine even published a special "Unwired" edition for the occasion.

Almost overnight, McDonald's, Starbucks, bookstores, hotels and airports began offering WiFi service at their locations, and dozens of wireless routers for the home were being tested, certified and branded so that people could see they were "verified" for optimal experience on Centrino-powered laptops.

On the day Centrino was released, thousands of verified hotspots were live, and Intel set a goal to have more than 10,000 verified hotspots by the end of the year.

In 2003 industry analyst firm IDC estimated that more than 118,000 hotspots would exist worldwide by 2005.

Prior to 2003, WiFi wireless Internet technology was relatively unknown to most people. In 2004, Pyramid Research reported that 75 million WiFi users existed globally, and that number was projected to climb to around 327 million in 2009.

Research numbers at the time varied, but most showed that the uptake of WiFi was momentous and not just a short-lived flash in the pan.

"Every great technology advancement had an event tied to it that caused it to spread widely," said Enderle. "For color it was Walt Disney's "Wonderful World of Color." For WiFi it was Intel's Centrino."

WiFi quickly changed the workplace, allowing people to roam around the office or work from coffee shops while staying connected to email and the Internet without wires. Yet WiFi went well beyond serving work needs. It turned laptops into a must-have personal device that people carried with them almost everywhere they went, even on vacation. Like a wallet, people began to think twice before leaving home without their laptop.

Sept. 25, 2003, 6 months after Centrino was released, was celebrated across the United States as "One Unwired Day." People with WiFi-equipped laptops got free wireless Internet access at more than 5,500 public WiFi hotspot locations nationwide. Hotspots continued popping up in common places around the world - places like libraries, museums and cities squares -- and in such unusual places as the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily and even hard-to-reach Mount Everest.

U.S. cities competed for the honor of being named "Most Unwired City." Portland, Ore. won the first Unwired City crown in 2003, followed by San Francisco in 2004 and Seattle in 2005, according to research sponsored by Intel and carried out by Bert Sperling's Best Places.

Not everything rolled out as quickly and smoothly as everyone had hoped. The innovative Connexion by Boeing in-flight Internet service was something industry experts and the media got to experience at San Francisco International Airport months prior to the launch of Centrino. The service was available on several airlines, but in 2006, Boeing announced that it would discontinue its Connexion service, stating that, "the market for this service has not materialized as had been expected." A few years later, after industry struggles and consolidation, many airlines began offering in-flight Internet service again, and today JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin are among airlines offering WiFi services on many flights.

Today, the growth of public wireless hotspots continues, according to JiWire, an advertising company that focuses on location-based channels such as WiFi networks. JiWire's Insights report released in August 2010 showed that the number of wireless hotspots in the United States grew 17 percent, and that free hotspots outnumbered fee-based service locations for the first time.

JiWire reported that over 55 percent of public hotspots in the country were free, mostly at hotels, cafes and airports, but pointed out that there was an 11 percent increase in other locations offering free wireless Internet access, including universities and public transit systems.

WiFi is now common in almost every new laptop and is being built inside all kinds of consumer electronics, including portable gaming devices, game consoles, tablets and mobile phones. The WiFi Alliance, a trade association that promotes Wireless LAN (WLAN) technology and certifies products built to certain standards for trusted interoperability, reported that there were 761 million shipments of WiFi products in 2010.

"These days, an electronic product not capable of communicating or accessing content at any time or in any place is regarded by consumers as deficient," said Jagdish Rebello, senior director and principal analyst for consumer and communication electronics at IHS. "This wireless revolution is contributing to a global boom in demand for WiFi chipsets."

With all the hotspots around the world, from coffee shops to nature preserves, it's hard to imagine there are more places to unwire. But more hotspots are coming, and more billions more devices are gaining connectivity functionality. IDC predicts some 15 billion intelligent, connected devices by 2015. According to research firm iSuppli, shipments of Wireless LAN chipsets are on pace to exceed 1 billion units in shipments in 2012 and more than 2 billion units by 2014.

And if you thought your home, hotel, local restaurant or coffee shop was all you needed to unwire, you may be in for a surprise. The next hotspot might just be your own car or in your pocket thanks to various services being offered by cellular carriers today on the latest smartphones.