Intel's WiMAX (Fat) Pipe Dreams
By Carlo Longino, Tue Jul 06 23:30:00 GMT 2004

As a part of the biggest hype blitz since trying to replace Wi-Fi with the Centrino brand, the company is saying the new big thing will make its way into laptops by 2006.

An Intel product manager told reporters the company expects the take-up of WiMAX to grow more quickly than Wi-Fi. While it's made for some good headlines, it's a hollow statement, as well as one that's unlikely to prove true. Wi-Fi grew slowly for a number of reasons: it had to shake off the competing HomeRF standard, and didn't really take off until well after laptop prices had dropped significantly, getting them into the hands of more home users. But more importantly, it wasn't until broadband Net access dropped in price and became essentially commonplace, giving home users a reason to share a single connection and making it cheap enough for small businesses to offer wireless access -- or attempt to make money from it.

Wi-Fi has been so successful because it is so cheap and easy for pretty much anybody to get the necessary equipment and quickly get up and running -- a point echoed by Mobile Pipeline's David Haskin, who's not drinking the Kool-Aid either. While it's true that Wi-Fi and WiMAX both beam data through the air to PCs, WiMAX requires service providers to set up commercial networks and provide end users with substantial customer premises equipment. Wi-Fi and WiMAX are totally different animals, one a local-area technology, the other wide-area, regardless of Intel spinning WiMAX as "the next Wi-Fi".

In that wide-area wireless networking space, WiMAX is going to face serious competition from competing technologies that are already making their way into the market -- and will provide a sterner test than HomeRF did for Wi-Fi. Incidentally, Intel was a major backer of HomeRF, though it didn't throw nearly as much marketing muscle or money behind that failed technology as it has Wi-Fi (ie Centrino) or WiMAX.

Haskin again points out that networks built on 802.20 and UMTS TDD technology from Flarion and IPWireless are already in use, with available PCMCIA card modems, not to mention WCDMA and CDMA2000 1x EV-DO and EV-DV networks now available around the globe. These networks will be operating in more locations and at higher speeds by the time the first mobile WiMAX products hit the market, and Wi-Fi roaming and "clouds" may even take significant share by then.

It's interesting that when Intel's talking about Wi-Fi as the competition for its latest golden boy, it doesn't work in the Centrino brand, which it has tried its best to make synonymous with the far more widely used moniker. But regardless of the company's marketing efforts, WiMAX is far from a sure thing.