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Does the Intel-Linksys Deal Doom Wi-Fi Interoperability?

On the surface, the deal struck between chip-making giant Intel and home networking leader Linksys seems only to make life easier for home-networking newcomers seeking to link their Centrino-based laptops with 802.11 gear. But below the calm waters is an undercurrent threatening to challenge the Wi-Fi Alliance industry consortium and the concept of interoperability.

On July 21, Intel and Linksys, now the home networking division of Cisco Systems, announced a technology and marketing program aimed at improving consumers' Wi-Fi experience. The program would be divided into two parts. One is creating technology that will make it easier for laptop computers using Intel's Centrino chipset to detect and connect with Linksys access points and routers. That's to come later. Initially, this agreement is all about the "Verified with Intel Centrino Technology" packaging label that will go on verified Linksys products, informing consumers that their Centrino-based gear will work with the Linksys product in the box.

Julie Ask, a Jupiter Research senior analyst, says while such an agreement could improve the Wi-Fi experience, "trying to force consumers into vendor-specific configurations will backfire."

Anand Chandrasekher, Vice President and General Manager, Intel Mobile Platforms Group, said the agreement with Linksys is not exclusive.

"If there's other opportunities with other companies, we'll look into it," said Chandrasekher, but so far, there are no other companies involved.

Linksys and Intel have a history of working together: Linksys in February began using Intel's XScale system in chips destined for access points.

Conspiracy buffs view the Intel with Linksys/Cisco triad as shutting out competitors and closing the gates of interoperability. Cisco earlier this year unveiled its Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) as a way to improve lax security surrounding the Wi-Fi standard. Some observers see it as only a matter of time before Intel includes the CCX standard in their Centrino chipset used in a growing number of wireless laptop computers. The result: Intel and Cisco/Linksys have a leg up against other players in the Wi-Fi marketplace. But is that reality?

"I don't see it as an evil triad," says Gemma Paulo, a wireless analyst for the research firm In-Stat/MDR. "Most people expect that Intel will dominate the business client market shortly with its embedded push of Centrino, and the home market is sure to follow."

Where does the new Intel verification system put the Wi-Fi Alliance? The alliance's hardware certification program has checked for hardware interoperability on 800 WLAN products, according to Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The certification process, ensuring products meet the Wi-Fi standard and work with one another, is "the foundation" of the non-profit organization, says Hanzlik.

While Intel calls its verification program a "super set of what the Wi-Fi Alliance does," the chipmaker admits the next step is including technology in Wi-Fi gear creating new standards for the entire industry.

Although Hanzlik is awaiting a briefing from Intel on its plans, he says feedback from wireless manufacturers and customers points to the need to continue interoperability and the importance of the Wi-Fi brand in deciding purchases.

Intel is quick to point out that its verification program won't muddy the waters of the Wi-Fi Alliances efforts. While the alliance concentrates on hardware compatibility, Intel plans to focus on the user experience. But that difference may quickly become thinner than a silicon wafer, according to Hanzlik.

As 802.11 chips make their way into home entertainment gadgets and devices not strictly devoted to transferring data between computers, the Wi-Fi Alliance will broaden its scope of certification, says Hanzlik, "to make the 'user experience' easier both at the store and at home, verification of hardware must be streamlined and speak with one voice."