Intel Outside Forget "Intel Inside." The company is hoping to seriously expand its horizons with a bold play in wireless.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Actually, "Centrino Inside" is the catch phrase that you'll hear ad nauseam starting later this month. What the heck is a Centrino? It's a major departure from earlier mobile microprocessor designs and the centerpiece of Intel's plan to promote--and dominate--computing in wireless network environments. You'll see more than a dozen new Centrino Inside portable computers, from almost all of Intel's PC partners: Toshiba, IBM, Dell, and many others.

Centrino, Intel says, is the first step toward a future when all computing devices communicate and all communications devices compute.

My own investigation concludes that "Centrino" is an anagram for "no cretin," "rent icon," and "not nicer." Let's examine each of those insights in greater depth.

No cretin: Although it operates at lower clock speeds than current Intel Pentium-4 Mobile chips, the main Centrino processor is far from computationally challenged. It's a new low-power, high-performance processor called the Pentium-M, which crams some 77 million transistors into an area smaller than your pinkie nail. Notably, the Pentium-M is the first processor designed from the scratchpad up for mobile applications. Until now the chips inside laptops have been desktop processors with their wings clipped.

That's only part of the story. The Centrino package comprises three main parts: Besides the Pentium-M, it includes a wireless radio chip for communicating securely with the growing number of 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless network hot spots, and a supporting chipset that Intel says will help improve the battery life and graphics performance of mobile devices.

PC makers typically select a processor from, say, company A, a chipset from company B, and maybe a wireless LAN chip from company C, trying to find the best balance of performance and price. Intel thinks it makes sense for PC makers to buy all the components from company A (a.k.a. Intel).

Greed aside, there is a logic to integrating the Pentium-M chip, the supporting chipset, and the wireless components into one package. Intel claims that Centrino-based computers can be made smaller and more efficient. Judging from the gigantic Gateway laptop I hoisted onto an airplane (see box), Centrino can also be used in notebooks that double as life rafts.

The company declined to provide specific battery claims ahead of the launch, but Shmuel "Mooly" Eden, Centrino's chief architect, said it would be reasonable to imagine business travelers working nonstop on a coast-to-coast flight on a single charge, or working a full day at the office without plugging in. Which means that you'd be able to watch at least one DVD movie on your flight, waste the day playing Snood at Starbucks, or subject your clients to mind-numbingly long PowerPoint presentations. According to Tom's Hardware (www.tomshardware.com), a leading independent source for PC hardware news, a test of an early Centrino notebook yielded about a 25% increase in battery life over comparable non-Centrino machines.

Intel says Centrino notebooks can roam seamlessly among thousands of "Centrino-certified" hot spots in airports, hotels, and other public places. (Pause here to spew your latte across Starbucks in disbelief.) No, really! Intel plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year--and devote 2,500 employees--to test hot spots and third-party components, making sure that Centrino-based devices work flawlessly. Intel further asserts that Centrino users will eventually be able to roam between hot spots without having to reconfigure their settings or enter billing information at each venue. Anyone who has tried wireless roaming knows that it's almost as simple as doing your tax return.

Another Centrino anagram is "rent icon." PC companies can choose to buy just the Pentium-M chip, which lets them match the Intel part with chipsets or wireless components made by other companies. (This also dodges any potential antitrust charges.) But they can't use the Centrino Inside logo--a pink-and-blue icon that looks a bit like a squashed MSN butterfly--unless they buy the Centrino chipset and wireless radio. As a further enticement, PC companies that go for the whole enchilada will get financial aid from Intel to help with marketing.

That takes us to anagram No. 3: Intel's competitors say the Centrino strategy is "not nicer."

If Intel can make good on all its Centrino promises, however, the wireless networking experience will be a lot nicer, indeed.