Growing up, we were always told that what is on the inside is much more important than what people viewed on the outside. We, of course, took this to heart, especially as we weathered a particularly nasty phase involving heavy black-framed glasses, braces and polyester-blend slacks. Fortunately, we survived and now we see that many companies in the mobile and wireless industry has adopted the same "what's inside" course of action.
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The most prominent of these insiders is Intel Corp., a company with more than its share of people who spent more time soldering printed circuit boards at the science club than slamming helmets on the football field. The company built a campaign around the "Intel Inside" philosophy, and has successfully evolved its products to become the core reason why most businesses and users are willing to spend a bit more money for systems that incorporate Intel chips.
Last year, Intel unveiled its mobile Pentium architecture -- called Pentium M -- which focused more attention on battery-saving techniques and system control rather than sheer processing. As a result, today, a Pentium M notebook system operating at 1.6GHz or so is really much more capable than a muscle-bound 2.6GHz Pentium IV chip, since the mobile architecture is able to juggle resources a lot better and squeeze out more battery life. The chip is now installed in a variety of systems worldwide, and has saved more than one mobile executive the heartache and hassle of carrying multiple batteries on long trips, like some power-parched Bedouin.
Recently, Intel unfolded the next segment on the Pentium M roadmap with an enhancement of that chip architecture, code-named Dothan. Details of the new chip architecture were released earlier this month at Intel's Develop Forum, held in San Jose, Calif. If the description of the chipset and its capabilities are on the mark -- and we have every reason to believe they are -- then Intel will take mobile computing up yet another notch when we see the first systems incorporating its design sometime next year.
Just what is so special about Dothan and this new architecture? From a technical standpoint, the chips will be built using Intel's advanced 90-nanometer manufacturing technology, incorporating 140 million small transistors and a strained silicon technique to allow for higher performance. It will also employ a number of micro-architectural enhancements. What this means in common simple-speak, however, is that Intel has built upon some of the best capabilities of the first versions of the Pentium M processor to develop an even better chip. Improvements include extended battery-saving capabilities and built-in technologies that are designed to enhance and aid wireless connections.
Intel plans to use the Dothan chip as a platform for a new chipset architecture called Sonoma. Sonoma is expected to arrive sometime in the second half of 2004, and will expand the Dothan architecture with an integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless LAN capability, as well as a new graphics engine, code-named Alviso. The chipset will also offer a whopping 2M bytes of on-chip cache memory, and an integrated and power-efficient graphics engine, and a power-managed audio capability (Azalia) -- which is critical for devices that are designed to support rich multimedia applications and data.
By far the most important aspect of the new chipset is its wireless capabilities, which have been expanded to support a wider range of wireless technologies (802.11 a/b/g), and support roaming between both WiFi LANs and emerging wireless wide area networks (WANs). In order to support roaming from one wireless system to the next, the chipset has been enhanced with a number of location-aware technologies that give it more of an intuitive nature when it comes to wireless networks. Basically, the chipset knows when you are wandering from one system to the next, and can automatically adjust for your position on the fly.
The location-aware and roaming capabilities that will reportedly be available in the new chipset are huge, since they really offer a number of strong and highly-definable return on investment (ROI) benefits for the cash-conscious IT executive. For example, users can lower the cost of roaming between expensive and multiple wireless systems by pre-selecting which networks should be preferred and sensing which are the cheapest. It's sort of like a Mapquest technology for wireless, only instead of finding the fastest or more direct route to a destination the Intel technology is designed to map out the most economical wireless channel.
Boosting by location
Intel's approach to location-based technology will also give a boost to this segment in general, which has always had a rough time establishing an ROI perspective when viewed from a data perspective. The majority of companies that are heavily vested in location-based systems, for example, always proclaim the benefits of having immediate access to information wherever you may be since the system relates the data to your location. This is not an easy sell, though, since it is often hard to put a general ROI value on location-based data (which is why many of these companies stress the security and control aspects of locking down information by location).
Intel's approach is simple: The embedded wireless technology and chipset theoretically knows where you are in relation to the nearest and most affordable wireless hub, and therefore results in an immediate and tangible cost savings. The result is a boost for location-aware technologies in general, and smile son the faces of CFOs everywhere.
Should IT executives hold off on notebook purchases until this neat new stuff is available in systems later next year? Absolutely not! As we always say, the best time to buy new technology and computers was yesterday. Also, Intel's chip roadmap is definitely evolutionary and not revolutionary, so there is no need to worry about compatibility issues or integrating newer systems into current ones.
We would suggest, though, that you keep at least one eye on Intel's competitors in this market -- especially Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Evolutions have a way of shaking thing sup and causing others to embark on a similar course, and the winner in this situation is the end user who has more choices and more price points to consider.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.