IBM raises stakes for wireless notebooks

The computing giant is using Intel's revving of mobile Pentium III-M--or Tualatin--processors as the occasion to deliver its first commercial portable with integrated wireless capabilities.

5 min read
IBM is trying to take a bite out of Apple Computer with the introduction of new wireless-capable notebooks.

As first reported by CNET News.com, IBM is making use of Intel's Monday revving of mobile Pentium III-M--or Tualatin--processors as the occasion to deliver its first commercial portable with integrated wireless capabilities, the ThinkPad T23.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based computing giant unveiled consumer portables sporting integrated wireless about a year ago. But unlike its consumer counterparts, the T23 packs new security features that are also integrated into the hardware. The security feature alone could give IBM a big advantage over other PC makers rolling out new wireless-capable models, analysts say.

"The security feature is a big differentiator for IBM," said Technology Business Research analyst Bob Sutherland. Because it's in the hardware, "you can lock the notebook to the user," he said.

"This integrating of high-security features into standard portable configurations is something we are going to be seeing more of," said IDC analyst Alan Promisel.

Still, in some ways IBM is playing catch-up with Apple, which has a two-year lead offering notebooks with integrated 802.11b wireless networking. In fact, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company offers wireless capability based on that standard on every system it sells. Apple sells two wireless-capable portables: the Titanium PowerBook G4 and the iBook.

As computer makers court back-to-schoolers--students and educational institutions--many find wireless networking an important selling point, especially for notebooks, say analysts. Particularly among undergraduate colleges and graduate schools, wireless is quickly emerging as the preferred way of connecting to educational networks and the Internet.

"Education does love wireless," Sutherland said. "It's the first market where not only IBM but all of its competitors have found the highest demand for wireless."

Shipments of portables to the U.S. education market are expected to grow 30 percent this year, accounting for 19.4 percent of the segment compared with 15.8 percent in 2000, according to IDC. In the Kindergarten through grade 12 market, Apple has about a 35 percent portables share.

IBM, Apple and Dell Computer, another trendsetter in integrated wireless networking, report that the majority of notebooks sold in the educational arena pack the feature fully enabled. Compaq Computer and Gateway also sell portables with integrated wireless.

Wireless inside the box
With 802.11b wireless, mobile users can travel unfettered from classroom to cubicle to conference room, maintaining connection to the local network or Internet without the need of bulky cables or a network jack. With a typical indoor range of about 150 feet from the wireless base station physically attached to the network, 802.11b delivers a maximum throughput of about 11mbps.

Overall, the wireless networking market is booming. Sales of wireless networking equipment jumped 80 percent last year, just breaking $1 billion, according to IDC. The market researcher expects equipment sales to reach $3.2 billion by 2005. Cahners In-Stat is more optimistic, forecasting that overall revenue for wireless networking should approach $4.6 billion by 2005.

Until recently, most computer makers relied on a PC Card inserted into the laptop's PCMCIA slot for delivering wireless networking. But starting with Apple, and then Dell, computer makers were integrating components inside the portable. An integrated antenna is standard on Apple's PowerBook G4 and Dell's new Latitude C810. But the wireless radio, or transceiver, is an add-on feature that costs extra.

With the T23, IBM solves one of the most common problems perplexing PC notebook buyers. Typically, laptop makers use a portable's mini-PCI slot to deliver a modem, network connector or wireless transceiver. Because there are only two of these slots available, those buyers looking for integrated wireless must either use a PC Card inserted into the laptop's PCMCIA slot for modem or network connectivity.

IBM opted for integrating the network connection onto the notebook's motherboard, making both mini-PCI slots free for dial-up and 802.11 wireless connectors. "This opens up the two PC Card slots and offers a lot of value with the multiple extenders," Promisel said.

Again, this integrated approach plays catch-up with Apple, which has been selling fully integrated wireless since autumn 1999. Apple does not use mini-PCI for wireless. A PC Card-sized component is inserted into the chassis for delivering wireless.

"We've kept the battery at about three hours," said Leo Suarez, IBM's worldwide product marketing manager for mobile systems. "That's a detail a lot of people forget to tell you about their machines: If you use the wireless antenna, the battery drains a lot faster. But we've solved that problem."

One of the T23's most important features is IBM's Communications Manager software, Suarez said. "If a user goes from a modem to a wireless network, the setups are all different," he explained. "IT managers tell us that generates a call to the help center. So with this Communications Manager, they just click they're going from the modem to a wireless network and it automatically reconfigures."

The feature also supports globetrotters "that might be in Germany today and Japan tomorrow," Suarez added.

Secure me
IBM is looking to woo more just than educational institutions with the T23. The notebook is IBM's first packing a sophisticated security chip that could appeal to the banking, financial, insurance and other markets where protecting sensitive data is a must.

"You see a lot of stories in the news recently about notebooks being stolen in the government at multiple levels as well as large corporations," Sutherland said. "If they can lock up the notebooks, that's a great benefit."

IBM introduced the security chip in September 1999 as a standard feature on select desktop models. The company later extended the 256-bit security chip's use to the NetVista PC line. In January, the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance, a trade group representing about 145 technology companies, adopted IBM's hardware security specification as the standard for its members to use.

The chip enables users to encrypt data from the client system for security purposes or for use in electronic transactions, such as ordering products or signing contracts. Data-scrambling technology typically requires a separate piece of hardware, such as a smart-card reader, or relies on cryptography provided with the operating system or third-party software. Using a security chip embedded in a motherboard offers an extra layer of protection because it depends on the hard-coded security chip.

But the chip also can be used in some wireless communications, mainly where the notebook connect to the home network via Virtual Private Networking.

The chip "does offer you the same type of security capabilities, securely getting into your network or the Internet, as long as you have (virtual private network) capabilities on there," Suarez said.

Promisel called it a "great feature" that "gives IBM a leg up on competitors."

The ThinkPad T23 weighs 4.8 pounds and ships with an integrated wireless antenna as standard fare. The entry-level model, priced at $2,279, comes with an 866MHz Tualatin processor, a 13.3-inch TFT display, a 15GB hard drive, 128MB of RAM, a 24X CD-ROM drive and Windows 98. A $3,599 system packs a 1.13GHz Tualatin processor, a 14.1-inch TFT display, a 48GB hard drive, 128MB of memory, an 8X DVD drive and Windows 98. The high-end system, for $3,959, offers full wireless, Windows 2000 and Office XP. All the models go on sale Tuesday.