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Intel backs rival wireless home computing

After a year of pushing what many analysts said was a losing technology, the company is switching its tune on what consumers should use to communicate wirelessly in their homes.

    After a year of pushing what many analysts said was a losing technology, Intel has switched its tune on what consumers should use to communicate wirelessly in their homes.

    Intel, one of the first companies to sell technology that allows consumers to wirelessly connect their home computers to the Net, previously supported a wireless standard called HomeRF that is backed by Compaq Computer, Motorola, Proxim, Siemens and others.

    Now the giant chipmaker is supporting Wi-Fi, or 802.11B, a wireless standard backed by Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, 3Com, Lucent Technologies, and dozens of others.

    The tech companies all sell wireless networking products that allow laptop users to roam around the house and Web surf. It allows consumers to connect all their computers, printers and peripherals and share the same Net connection.

    The split among tech companies in the emerging home-networking market has caused a standards war that analysts say is akin to the VCR technology fight that pitted VHS against Betamax in the early days of videotape machines in the home. The result is confusion among consumers who could buy wireless products that are incompatible with each other--a problem that could deter many consumers from even trying the technology in the first place.

    But analysts say the about-face by Intel gives Wi-Fi an edge to win out as the standard in the home. Analysts had previously predicted that Wi-Fi stands a better chance to become the standard in the home because it's the standard used in businesses. Hotels and airports are also installing Wi-Fi.

    "This is a signal that HomeRF isn't going to last a whole lot longer," said Yankee Group analyst Karuna Uppal. "The truth is we're still in the early stage of the home-networking market, and people are going to gravitate to brands they trust. You have 3Com, Dell, Lucent, Apple and now Intel who are offering Wi-Fi products."

    Intel executives say they will continue to sell its HomeRF products that move data at 1.6mbps (megabits per second). But its next-generation Intel "AnyPoint" product, available as early as July, will support the much faster Wi-Fi technology that moves data at 11mbps.

    Dan Sweeney, general manager of Intel's home-networking operation, said it no longer made sense to support HomeRF. The company already builds wireless networking kits for businesses that support Wi-Fi, so supporting one single standard will allow workers to go home and have their work laptops easily connect to a wireless home network.

    "As everything gets tight in this economy, it's easier for Intel to invest in a single standard, and it eliminates the issue of how laptops work between work and home," he said.

    Intel previously touted HomeRF as cheaper than Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi products have dropped considerably in the last year, Sweeney added. Intel was also concerned that a new, faster HomeRF standard might not be ready this year.

    HomeRF supporters disagree, saying the next-generation HomeRF standard that reaches the same speeds as Wi-Fi is still on track and that companies such as Proxim plan to ship new products in the second half of this year.

    "It's regrettable they made this decision," said Ken Haase, a Proxim executive and representative of HomeRF, referring to Intel's switch. "We are still moving full steam ahead, and everything is on schedule."

    Haase said HomeRF products are still slightly cheaper than Wi-Fi products and that it has better support for voice, allowing consumers to create multiple phone lines in the home.

    Haase also added that a handful of technology companies recently signed on to support HomeRF and that the wireless standards group will announce the new supporters soon.

    "We are confident with where we are headed," he said.