World attention away from Centrino launch

On Wednesday, Intel will officially launch its new Centrino mobile processor chip, which offers built-in Wi-Fi capabilities and will be given a US$300 million advertising send-off. But company officials acknowledge that the launch comes at a dicey time, given the attention on the Middle East and military build-up there.

Already, a number of companies are announcing wireless plans tied to the Centrino launch. Borders Group Inc. and McDonald's Corp., for example, plan to offer public access Wi-Fi venues. Both plan to provide what Intel calls the "ecosystem" to support demand for Centrino-branded products.

Borders announced Tuesday that it has a joint marketing agreement with Intel to support rollout of Wi-Fi access at more than 400 of its bookstores.

And McDonald's, according to Intel spokesman Dan Francisco, plans to test free Wi-Fi access at 10 stores in Manhattan and then install Wi-Fi in another 200 restaurants in Chicago and an as-yet undetermined California city by the end of the year.

New York customers who buy an Extra Value Meal at any of the 10 Wi-Fi-equipped McDonald's will receive a scratch-off card that contains all the information needed to use wireless-equipped laptops to log on for a free, 60-minute session of Wi-Fi access.

Besides hardware manufacturers -- which will be announcing a number of Centrino-related products -- Intel has also planned joint marketing campaigns with a number of companies, including Wi-Fi network operators.

But as the Centrino launch approaches -- it was announced weeks ago that Intel would take the wraps off the chip on March 12 -- Intel officials acknowledge that world events have clouded their big day.

"Like everyone else, we're obviously watching world events very closely," said Amy Hamilton, an Intel spokeswoman. "At this point, we haven't changed any [Centrino] marketing activities or plans. We're not going to speculate on the potential effect a war with Iraq might have on the technology industry."

But, she said, "as part of our normal operations, we have a wide variety of contingency plans in place for a variety of events. However, as a matter of policy, we don't talk about the specifics of those plans."

Dan Miklovic, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc.'s G2 division, who offers insights online about the potential impact of a war on the IT business, said this is "probably not the best time" to orchestrate a global product introduction.

But, depending on how events play out on the world stage, Intel and its partners may have "a couple of weeks to get things moving," he said.

One company that's been through something similar is Washington-based XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.

Hugh Panero, CEO of the satellite-based radio subscription service company, understands what Intel could face with its much-ballyhooed Centrino launch. XM Satellite Radio was scheduled to launch on Sept. 12, 2001, which turned out to be the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

According to Panero, XM postponed its launch for a month and scrubbed an extensive advertising campaign. He urged Intel officials to use the same careful approach with their advertising campaign. "The first week of a war is not a good time to advertise," he said, adding that in times of crisis, people are concerned "with life and death, not satellite radios or Wi-Fi."

XM Satellite Radio bounced back quickly after the Sept. 11 attacks because the radio service offers access to a number of news channels, including the BBC World Service and CNN Radio. The public thirst for information post-Sept. 11 "saved us," Panero said.

The same desire for access to information could also help Intel and its Centrino partners, he said, given the broadband capabilities of Wi-Fi to tap into news and information.

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