Taking Note of Notebooks
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Wi-Fi enabled laptop and notebook computers seem to be everywhere. From public hotspots where you order a steaming cup of mocha latti alongside a wireless broadband connection to the family physician with a wireless laptop, using an 802.11b card is becoming as common as last month's issue of National Geographic in the waiting room.
Since the 1999 decline in personal computer desktop sales, laptops and notebooks have played a larger part in overall PC sales, according to market researchers at IDC. After comprising nearly 24 percent of global PC sales during the first quarter of 2002, notebooks are on target to be 25 percent of the world market of PCs, according to IDC.
So just how prevalent are laptops that are Wi-Fi enabled? We sat down with chipmaker Intersil and Navin Sabharwal, director of networking at Allied Business Intelligence, to find out.
Wi-Fi By Any Other Name
Although you won't find too many Wi-Fi equipped laptops and notebooks at your local electronics store, the numbers are growing, according to Allied Business Intelligence. Those numbers range as low as two percent to as high as 90 percent, depending on which definition of 'Wi-Fi enabled' a person uses.
There are essentially two categories of Wi-Fi enabled notebook and laptop computers: embedded and attached.
Two examples of embedded Wi-Fi solutions include IBM's ThinkPad A31 with Intersil's wireless networking chip, or Toshiba's Satellite Pro 4600.
Intersil's PRISM 2.5 wireless networking chip set uses a small mini-PCI card which "allows IBM to design embedded wireless LAN capability directly into the internal design," according to Peter Hortensius, vice president of development for IBM Personal Computing Devices.
Sabharwal says 11 percent of the 32 million notebooks produced this year will include embedded 802.11b support. That is up from three to four percent in 2001.
By far the most popular method for notebook users to gain Wi-Fi ability is by adding an adapter card. Inexpensive PC Card-based adapters from Dell, Compaq and others account for anywhere between 20 percent and 90 percent of notebooks with 802.11 functionality, according to Allied Business Intelligence.
Dan Lowden, marketing VP at Wi-Fi hotspot aggregator Wayport, estimates the number of Wi-Fi enabled laptops at about 20 percent, and growing fast.
Leader of the Wi-Fi Pack
Sabharwal says that while IBM and Toshiba were once "clearly ahead by a mile" in their notebooks support of 802.11, there "really is no market leader" now.
Enterprises lead the demand for notebooks with Wi-Fi capabilities, but the Allied Business Intelligence researcher says most companies are asking original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to leave out embedded support for 802.11 so employees can outfit their notebooks with Wi-Fi cards.
Apple Computer is the champ when it comes to add-on Wi-Fi. Allied Business Intelligence's Sabharwal says Apple's AirPort access point and 802.11 cards have the highest percentage of integrated Wi-Fi use.
A Crowd of Contenders
Along with IBM, Toshiba and Apple, Fujitsu's Lifebooks with a 3COM WLAN adapter are making a strong showing in an ever more crowded market of Wi-Fi enabled notebook computers. HP, Compaq and Sony are also jostling for position. As Wi-Fi becomes a commodity, like having an analog modem, chances are we will soon stop counting to see who the leader is.