IBM, Dell trail Apple in wireless laptop push

PC giants IBM and Dell are locked in a bitter competition to be the first Windows-based PC maker to offer wireless networking built into notebooks.

5 min read
It's a race for second place, and IBM and Dell Computer are running neck and neck.

The PC giants are locked in a bitter competition to be the first Windows-based PC maker to offer wireless networking built into notebooks.

Gartner analyst Michael McGuire says Computer makers are moving in this direction because they recognize their customers want more than just the latest hardware: They want complete systems that offer everything.

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That's a feature Apple Computer has offered for more than a year on Mac notebooks, however, and for much less money than what either Dell or IBM will charge.

While Dell and IBM for the most part will not be competing against each other, both want a piece of one of Apple's core markets: education. Dell is focusing more on the corporate and education markets; IBM is after consumers, small businesses and schools.

At the DemoMobile trade show today in Pasadena, Calif., IBM will show off ThinkPad i Series notebooks with fully integrated wireless networking for connecting to computer networks or the Internet without cables. IBM will begin offering fully integrated wireless ThinkPads, as well as Bluetooth PC cards, at the end of October.

But as first reported by CNET News.com, Dell has a similar product in the works. Round Rock, Texas-based Dell later this month will start shipping Latitude notebooks with an integrated antenna but lacking the other component crucial to offering wireless networking.

Both companies say they will be the first to offer integrated wireless networking, which uses an internal antenna and an IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN component to connect over the air at 11 mbps (megabits per second). A LAN (local area network) is a short-distance network used to link a group of computers together within a building. IBMThinkPadi

Which company gets bragging rights is a matter of point of view. Dell isn't expected to offer the wireless LAN component until the mid- to late fourth quarter. Apple has offered integrated wireless on portables and other Macs for more than a year.

"Apple already has an internal wireless LAN, so this is only meeting what they already have," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said.

No easy feat
Rigging PCs and notebooks for wireless access, which is viewed as one of the hottest trends in corporate computing, has been far from painless until now. With the exception of Apple's integrated AirPort product, wireless notebook networking has relied on a bulky PC card to send and receive data to a transceiver, or base station, attached to a corporate network. Integration is an important step in driving greater commercial acceptance for wireless access, as it should simplify the wireless networking process.

Apple's LAN card fits inside the notebook, while Dell and IBM rely on mini-PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) components. Lucent Technologies will make the mini-PCI wireless LAN card used in IBM portables.

One thing making wireless networking attractive is increased mobility. Because people can connect to network resources without using wires, they can move unfettered from, say, the cubicle to the conference room. Range from portable to base station is 150 feet for optimal performance but can extend to as much as 300 feet.

The feature is particularly attractive to the education and small-business markets, where the cost of laying networking cable is a big deterrent to creating LANs.

"IBM is going after education and small business," Dulaney said. "They need wireless because of the difficulty and expense of putting in wires."

Rather than knocking down walls to lay network cable, schools can drop in a base station and equip portables with wireless LAN cards.

Greg Aogwiak, Apple's director of portable and communications products, said another factor spurring wireless LAN sales is the mobile classroom.

Schools and colleges "don't even have to dedicate the space to create a computer lab, as they used to," he said. "It's been especially popular in places like California, where you have class-size reduction and you don't necessarily have the space to dedicate to computer labs the way you used to."

All three companies report high demand for wireless products in the education market, where Apple has had big success selling its stylized iBook.

"The vast majority of iBooks going out to education are going out with AirPort cards, (as are) a majority of PowerBooks," Aogwiak said.

Taking a bite out of education
While Dell has been slowly eating away at Apple's education market share, IBM has trailed far behind both companies. But recent ThinkPad deals with the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest and other schools underscore a renewed assault on the education market.

"These types of announcements are usually market-driven," Technology Business Research analyst Bob Sutherland said. "For example, IBM announced a few months ago a collaboration with Edison Schools for delivering computing solutions for the classroom. If they're going after this with the i Series, they're responding to some of this initial demand."

IBM in June announced the deal with Edison, which manages 79 public schools in 16 states and 36 cities, affecting 250,000 students.

Until IBM begins offering ThinkPad i Series 1300 portables with integrated wireless LAN late next month, no PC manufacturer is expected to match Apple's offering. And neither Dell nor IBM will match Apple's price. AirPort base stations cost $299, while those from the two PC makers are expected to sell for close to $1,000.

Still, IBM is clearly targeting iBook with the i Series 1300, based on features and price.

"For around $1,400 you will be able to buy a ThinkPad i Series with a Celeron 500-MHz or 550 processor, a lower-end hard (drive), 12-inch screen and integrated wireless antenna, plus an 802.11-protocol PC card that fits in the mini-PCI bay," said Rick McGee, vice president of mobile brand marketing for IBM's PC division.

Besides offering integrated wireless, IBM late next month also plans to offer a Bluetooth PC card, enabling notebooks to connect wirelessly to handheld computers, cell phones, printers and other peripherals.

But IBM won't have bragging rights there. Toshiba will widely offer a Bluetooth PC card later this month.

"We're already shipping the card in Japan and other geographies," said Steve Andler, Toshiba's vice president of marketing.