September 21, 2000 4:00 AM PDT

Dell to show off laptops with wireless networking

AUSTIN, Texas--Dell Computer today made it bid to enter the fast-growing market for wireless networking with two new notebooks outfitted with antennas for connecting to computer networks and the Internet.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, Dell unveiled the Latitude C series corporate notebook, offering integrated IEEE 802.11B wireless networking.

Taking a cue from Apple Computer, which has offered integrated wireless networking for more than a year, Dell is looking to boost sales in the education, government, retail and health care markets, where the technology is a hot-ticket item. Dell and laptop rival IBM are in a tight race to bring the technology to Windows-based notebooks.

Using the technology, notebooks can move from cubicle to conference room without the need for cables and wires and without breaking the connection to network resources or the Internet. The 802.11-outfitted portable connects to a wireless transceiver, or base station, hooked into the network and offers transfer rates of up to 11 megabits per second (mbps).

"Corporate markets are essentially looking for ways to make their workers more productive, whether they're traveling on an airplane or around the world," said Dataquest analyst Mike McGuire. "Always-on, always-connected is being perceived as being more and more a requirement for a lot of workers, and certainly wireless LAN catches that next step."

Two Latitude C models will initially be available: the C600, which goes on sale Monday, and the C800. The Round Rock, Texas-based company expects to begin taking Latitude C800 orders within 60 days. Dell is showing off the new portables at its DirectConnect conference here.

Both laptops will be ready for wireless networking but won't actually be able to connect until a necessary plug-in component is ready later this year.

Both models are more stylized than earlier Latitude portables, part of an overall design change being unveiled today on commercial PCs. The C600 measures 1.4 inches with a starting weight of 4.9 pounds. The $2,599 entry-level machine will feature a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, 14.1-inch TFT display, 64MB of RAM, 8MB of video memory, a 6GB hard drive, 24X CD-ROM drive and 56-kbps modem.

The C800 is Dell's first business portable with a 15-inch display, a feature long available on Inspiron consumer models. The entry-level model will come with an 850-MHz Pentium III processor, 15-inch SXGA+ display, 64MB of memory, 16MB of video RAM, a 10GB hard drive and a 56-kbps modem for $3,299.

While the C600 and C800 pack integrated antennas, they initially will lack the other component enabling wireless networking. Dell is waiting for Lucent to deliver the wireless LAN component, which fits in the portables' mini-PCI slot.

Dell spokesman Rob Crawley said he could not give an estimated availability other than "before the end of the year." He said Dell opted to proceed with the product launch despite the component's delay to protect potential customers' investments.

"It removes one of the decision factors for choosing a notebook, because these are wireless-enabled," he said. "If the customer chooses down the road to go with 802.11, the notebooks they bought are already to go."

Wireless gaining acceptance
IBM also plans to offer integrated wireless starting next month, but with both the antenna and LAN component. While Lucent supplies both companies, IBM doesn't face the same delay because its product is for a different market.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer maker is focusing more on consumers and small businesses with its first wireless portable, the ThinkPad i Series 1300. Dell's wireless LAN component is undergoing final refinements to meet the greater interoperability and security demands of the corporate market.

The move to integrated 802.11B wireless networking is viewed as validation of a technology that is finding its footing after years delays.

"Companies like Apple are integrating wireless directly into the PCs, and as soon as that happens, that's going to drive adoption in the consumer market," said Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Rebecca Diercks.

Most current wireless LAN offerings use an 802.11-equipped PC card and antenna to connect over the air to a base station.

"Certainly a PC card solution works, but at a very low level you see problems," Dataquest's McGuire said. "If I take it out and throw it in my bag, there's a good chance I'm going to snap that antenna off. Obviously, an integrated antenna allows you to create a more robust solution rather than having an exposed antenna."

Coming on the heels of 802.11 is another, much-hyped wireless technology, known as Bluetooth, which works over a shorter distance but offers to link cell phones, pagers, handhelds and laptops into a "personal area network" that connects to the Internet. The first Bluetooth products are just now coming to market, but significant numbers of devices will not arrive for another year or two.

Demand for wireless networking is booming in the education market, Diercks said.

Sources close to Dell say about 80 percent of portables sold to the government and education markets go out with 802.11 PC cards. For Apple, most iBook notebooks going to schools pack wireless LAN cards.

On the corporate side, Cahners forecasts the wireless networking market will grow to $2.2 billion in 2004 from $771 million last year. A surge in demand is expected among frequent travelers, as airports and hotels add 802.11B wireless base stations. But measuring growth remains difficult.

"There are more companies trying to do, for a fee, kinds of fast access--companies such as WavePort," McGuire said. "It becomes another way for me to stay in touch with my office without having to trust the vagaries of what essentially comprises a private network in a hotel."

One issue that could hurt adoption of the technology is the high price of the base stations, particularly for the education market. Dell and IBM plan to sell their base stations for around $1,000, which is $700 more than Apple's price.

 

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