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Big Blue dives deeper into wireless

IBM announces several new wireless devices, chips and services that the company hopes will create enthusiasm among consumers and hardware manufacturers.

IBM announced several new wireless devices, chips and services Monday that the company hopes will create enthusiasm among consumers and hardware manufacturers.

The blitz of wireless announcements from IBM included a deal to embed its chips in the next generation of cell phones from Mitsubishi Electric and a goal to enable IBM's popular ThinkPad laptop computer line to access wireless networks by year's end. Big Blue also announced a new product that lets systems administrators access computing networks wirelessly and easier installations that should be completed within days for wireless corporate networks.

IBM isn't breaking much new ground with this latest wireless push, instead adding its name to a growing number of companies offering similar wireless products. But analysts say the computing giant's endorsement of wireless technologies is significant, particularly at a time when many questions about the future of the wireless industry are being raised.

"People in the wireless industry have asked computer makers to embed wireless devices in devices," said Alan Reiter of Outlook4Mobility, a research and consulting firm. "The argument given, with some validity, is why should we put an extra cost option into a computer where we really aren't sure if there is a significant mass market?

"If IBM is indeed offering wireless as a standard feature, then it does give credibility to the whole concept of wireless as an essential part of computing," Reiter said.

Many analysts expect that the computing giant is likely to play a significant role in shaping the wireless sector.

"IBM clearly wants to be a player, and given their size and customer base, they will be," said Peter Friedland, a senior analyst with W.R. Hambrecht, an investment bank.

Keith Waryas, an analyst with market research firm IDC, said IBM's move might position the company to take the lead in wireless consulting, just as it's done well in consulting for the wired side of the industry.

"They are huge on the consulting level," Waryas said. "They literally coined the term 'e-biz.' This represents an obvious extension down that path."

Although it has been knocked recently, the wireless industry is headed for some boom times, according to many analyst projections. Gartner, for instance, says that by 2003, the average worker will have three devices, ranging from a laptop, a phone or a personal digital assistant. Other analysts are forecasting that by 2010, telephone service providers focusing on the next generation of high-speed cell phones will make a total of $1 trillion in revenue.

Untethered ThinkPads and other new products
IBM has been wireless for a while. It began putting wireless antennas into its ThinkPad series last year. But Monday's announcements include such a broad array of IBM's product line that analysts think Big Blue is diving deeper into the wireless arena.

While IBM says it's the first to make an entire line of products capable of going wireless, that may not be true, Reiter said. Dell and Toshiba have been offering the same type of capability for all of their products for the last several months, Reiter said.

Other analysts noted that dozens of companies are offering the same type of products.

Val Rahmani, who oversees IBM's global wireless strategy, said on a conference call that IBM has made a large percentage of its products capable of being plugged into a wireless system.

She said that most ThinkPad models should by year's end be embedded with an antenna capable of working with wireless local area networks (LANs). Wireless LANs are networks that let people in a hotel lobby, for instance, connect to the Internet without having to plug into a phone jack. There are a growing number of LANs in places like airports, airplanes and cruise ships.

IBM's deal to supply chips to Mitsubishi is not the company's first foray into the mobile phone business. IBM has worked with Samsung in past years, using a different chipset, Reiter said.

The company also said Monday it would sell a way for businesses to establish a wireless network within a few days, calling it IBM Global Services. IBM has offered the same service to larger companies in the past. With Monday's announcement, it'll begin selling the goods to smaller businesses as well, Rahmani said.