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Dell chasing Apple's wireless plans

About the time Apple delivers the first iBook portables with wireless networking, Dell will offer a similar feature for business notebooks.

Dell Computer is chasing Apple in the rush to wireless notebooks, the latest indication that the market is on the verge of taking off.

About the time Apple delivers the first iBook portables with wireless networking, Dell will offer a similar feature for business notebooks.

Dell's wireless plans, using technology from AiroNet, are part of a groundswell of interest built around wireless networking, particularly among larger companies.

Lindy Lesperance, analyst with Technology Business Research, said Dell is the first leading PC manufacturer to offer wireless networking for business notebooks.

"It's a very attractive technology," Lesperance said. "It allows people to be truly mobile in the office. If it's appropriately priced, it would also be appealing to the education and small-business markets."

Wireless notebook networking typically uses a PC Card to send and receive data to a transceiver, or base station, attached to a corporate network. Because users can connect to network resources without using wires, they can move unfettered from, say, the cubicle to the conference room.

Range and performance had been two issues holding back adoption of the technology, as well as some wrangling over standards. But with the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard, supported by Apple, Dell, and others, those barriers are becoming less daunting.

Apple's AirPort wireless feature has a range of 150 feet from its base device to the notebook, and Dell's has a range of about 300 feet. Both deliver transfer rates of up to 11 mbps, which is slightly faster than standard network speeds.

As a result of the recent progress on industry standards, International Data Corporation predicts that wireless networking will begin to take off next year. IDC estimates $839 million in sales for 2000 and $1.56 billion for 2001.

"As wide-area wireless becomes faster, cheaper, more reliable, and interoperable, the market acceptance for wireless LANs will continue to improve," said Jonathan Guloyan, IDC's senior group marketing manager for communications research.

One company pushing hard for the technology is Microsoft, which plans to convert its entire Redmond, Washingon, campus to wireless networking by July next year.

Dell believes that pent-up demand for wireless networking will drive sales. The PC maker will initially offer the AiroNet PC Card for around $400 but has not set a price for the AiroNet's Wireless Access Point, the device used to connect to the corporate network.

By contrast, Apple's more limited-range AirPort will cost $99 for a small expansion card that goes inside the notebook and $299 for the base station. Another difference: Apple has built two antennas into the lid of the iBook notebook to improve data transfer; the AiroNet cards are inserted into a PC Card expansion slot, and the antenna protrudes slightly from the notebook.

With the availability of 15-inch screens and performance closing in on desktops, Dell predicted less need for monitors and other devices attached to a docking station.

"We're one step closer to elimination of the docking station because you don't have to attach a hardware mouse," said Tim Peters, worldwide general manager for Dell Latitude notebooks. "The only thing you would still need docking for is the power."

Dell has much bigger plans. Its wireless technology will be available for Inspiron, Dell's consumer notebook line, and eventually on consumer and corporate PCs. Dell also plans wireless technology inside the box, using miniPCI instead of PC card devices.

Total cost of a wireless network would depend not so much on how many PC cards a customer would need but the number of base stations because of their limited, 300-foot range.

AiroNet will be available as a factory-installed option through the Dell Plus program. Dell Plus, a customization division for larger corporate customers, typically handles specialty hardware and software needs.

Compaq also has big plans for wireless, and claims it has a slight lead on Dell. The company's small business group introduced a 2 mbps wireless card in June, making Compaq not Dell the first to offer notebook wireless, said Benjamin Williams, Compaq's North America director for displays and peripherals product marketing.

But Compaq's wireless notebook offering is not geared for corporate customers nor is it a complete solution. Compaq's wireless card lacks a base station and doesn?t meet the full 11 mbps speed standard. Users can only use the cards for peer-to-peer networking, that is between systems and not from the server.

"We will follow our initial strategy with an 11 mbps card and base station," said Williams. "And that will be a Compaq branded solution backed by services, not something from a third party."