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Intel's Centrino Solution

The old mantra for PC chip makers – faster is better – is breaking down. Can platformization take its place?

Before 1991, only a few computer aficionados cared which company made the micro­processors inside their PCs, or how fast those processors ran. But then came “Intel Inside,” the chip maker’s ingenious campaign to mar­ket directly to consumers. The adver­tising crusade not only trained PC buyers to look for the Intel sticker on new desktops and laptops; it made them feel old-fashioned if they didn’t have the latest, fastest edition in the 486 or Pentium ­series of chips. And Intel prospered, cementing its lead over rivals such as Advanced Micro Devices. An impressive 82 percent of PCs shipped globally in the third quarter of 2004 contained Intel ­microprocessors.

But computing is changing in ways that are forcing the company to stretch beyond its traditional talent for making and marketing faster and faster microprocessors. For one thing, there’s a ceiling on the number of transistors that can work side by side on a single chip without overheating, and Intel and its competitors are already banging up against it. That’s leading to more efficient designs that use multiple processors and get tasks done faster by breaking them up, rather than by making each processor do more operations per second. At the same time, people are taking advantage of innovations like wireless broadband to use their computers in new ways. If your laptop’s main function is to keep you in touch with the office from any airport lounge or conference hall, you’d probably prefer an energy-efficient processor that gives you an extra hour of battery life to one that can run your Power­Point animations faster.

Intel engineers saw these trends coming, and shortly after the millennium they started designing a cooler-running, more power-efficient processor called the Pentium M. When wireless Internet standards began to catch on with consumers around 2002, Intel decided to combine the Pentium M, a Wi-Fi radio, and a new low-power chipset – a group of memory and graphics chips supporting the CPU – into a package called Centrino. Since the launch of Centrino in March 2003, Intel has captured a respectable 11 percent of the market for wireless networking (see “A Newcomer to Wireless,” below), up from zero prior to Centrino.

Centrino can be viewed as a case of good timing (Wi-Fi gained popularity just as Intel was looking for ways to make laptops and notebooks more useful) or as a brilliant encore to “Intel Inside.” But executives say the project’s real significance lies elsewhere. With Centrino, the company set itself a threefold challenge: to build on the strengths of formerly separate Intel products such as microprocessors and wireless networking cards by tailoring them to work in unison; to coördinate the work of the divisions responsible for these components, so they could be launched simultaneously under a single Intel brand; and to convince PC manufacturers and consumers that they still need Intel technology in a market where mobility and communications, rather than simple computing speed, are paramount.

Incoming CEO Paul Otellini and others – who apologize for not coming up with a more elegant term – call their new philosophy “platformization.” They say sequels to Centrino are coming in areas such as home digital entertainment and enterprise computing. Platformization “means the convergence of computing and communications,” says chief tech­nology officer Patrick Gelsinger. “But it’s far more than that, because it changes every aspect of what we do.”

The first signs of change came early in this decade, when designers at Intel admitted to themselves that “eventually the microprocessor would hit a power wall,” says Mooly Eden, then vice president of Intel’s Mobile Platforms Group and the man most credited with conceiving and executing the Centrino project. Making computers more portable meant reducing the CPU’s power consumption and heat emissions, which in turn meant sacrificing some clock speed. The first step in that direction was the Pentium M, which used less power and generated less waste heat than its predecessor, the Pentium III, but ran at only 65 to 85 percent of the Pentium III’s top clock speed.

The second step: the so-called 855 chipset surrounding the Pentium M, which also used less power and was small enough to squeeze into a notebook-sized computer. As a pair, the Pentium M and the 855 chipset would have allowed computer manufacturers to sell laptops that stayed on for more than an hour longer, without any improvements in battery capacity (which remains the biggest laggard in mobile computing technology).

But then came a third development. As Eden puts it, “Now that you can go away from your desk for five hours, you must make sure you are still connected.” Wi-Fi was an almost ideal way to do that: it provided communication at DSL speeds and allowed users to connect to the Internet from anywhere within a 100-meter radius of a central base station (or 400 meters outdoors). At the time, connecting to a Wi-Fi network meant buying a separate, removable network card from a company such as Broadcom. But Eden and his colleagues realized that if they could build Wi-Fi chips small enough to fit inside a laptop, Intel would have all of the components needed to make laptops into mobile workplaces. So even though the three com­ponents of Centrino “were not conceived as a ‘platform’ from day one,” says Eden, the idea of cobranding them took hold quickly. “Paul Otellini was very strong about going in this direction, and there was no argument between Paul, Craig, and Andy,” Eden says, referring to Craig Barrett, the company’s sitting CEO, and Andy Grove, its cofounder and chairman.

All three men, in fact, believed Intel had to enter the next decade of computing with more to offer than raw computing power. Platforms like Centrino would provide an incentive for Intel’s customers – the companies that actually sell Pentium laptops and notebooks – to purchase more Intel components. But more importantly, they would inspire computer owners to find new uses for their PCs.

Still, committing to Centrino was a gutsy decision. For one thing, Intel wasn’t a platforms company. Microprocessors, chipsets, and wireless components were (and are) made by independent divisions, each with its own vice president respon­sible for the division’s bottom line. The divisions weren’t accustomed to meeting schedules imposed from above, and the Centrino project as a whole could proceed only as fast as whichever team was having the most technical trouble, says Eden. “I cannot think of a minute where there wasn’t a problem of some kind,” says Eden. “I would not say people resisted it. But if I hadn’t had the total endorsement of the executives, I don’t believe we could have met the schedule or had this success.”

Intel also knew that Centrino would be seen as a stretch – or even an intrusion – by some of its customers. “There were very serious questions asked by some of the manufacturers,” says Gel­singer. They wanted to know whether a microchip company understood how to build radios, and whether Intel’s growing share of the innards of their computers would overshadow their own brands. Intel had to “paddle like crazy” to get ­mobile-PC manufacturers to buy into Centrino before the March 2003 brand launch, says Gelsinger.

Intel’s final challenge was making sure there would be places where mobile-­computer owners could actually use the technology. “To really make the Wi-Fi aspect work, you can’t just give people a PC,” says Mike Hoefflinger, Intel’s director of comarketing. “There has to be some­thing at the other end.” A key part of Intel’s strategy was to blanket high-traffic locales with enough Centrino-branded hot spots that consumers would be persuaded to buy Centrino laptops. So Hoefflinger led an effort to install Centrino-certified Wi-Fi base stations in hundreds of hotels, cafés, and airport clubs, each prominently displaying the Centrino logo.

By most measures, Centrino is succeeding. Computer buyers have come to expect wireless local-area networking as ­a standard feature of new laptops and notebooks. And coming not far behind Wi-Fi is WiMax, a new high-speed wireless networking standard with enough range to cover entire cities (see “Why WiMax?” November 2004, p. 20). Gel­singer says Intel will launch a new WiMax-capable version* of Centrino in 2006.

Centrino “marked the beginning of a major change in the way Intel brings value to the market,” says Otellini. That means you shouldn’t be surprised if the PC or laptop you’re buying two or three years from now includes new Intel components that beam video and music files to your entertainment center or communicate wirelessly with Intel chips in your climate control system and your car. For just as computing spread from the mainframe to the personal computer almost 25 years ago, it’s now spreading from the PC to the larger environment. Equipment makers who adapt to this transition, rather than resisting it, are much more likely to be around 25 years from now. With Centrino as “the playbook and the gold standard” for future platformization projects, to quote Hoefflinger, Intel may have the inside track.

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