Two dozen computer makers today are scheduled to unveil laptops that use a new chip from Intel Corp. that it hopes will lay the groundwork for a wireless revolution by encouraging consumers to connect to the Internet from hotels, coffee shops, airports and airplanes in flight.
Hoping to capitalize on one of the fastest-growing sectors of the lethargic high-tech industry, companies such as Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Alienware Corp. are debuting computers that use Intel's Centrino chip technology.
Intel, which is spending more than $300 million to advertise its new chip, calls Centrino its most important product launch since its Pentium line.
Designed specifically to run laptops, Centrino includes a radio component that lets users surf the Web wirelessly without having to buy extra devices.
But analysts say Intel, Toshiba Corp. and others are pushing wireless technology because they see it as a way to pull the industry out of a two-year lull.
"In the computer space, the entire segment needs something to happen to get out of the slump," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group.
"In an environment where war is likely, this ability to be able to function wherever you are is increasingly important," he said.
The laptops being unveiled are the first of a wave of wireless products to start rolling out. Centrino-equipped ultralight laptops and tablet PCs are scheduled to debut this year.
Hand-held computers that fit in coat pockets also are offering wireless capability, and some computer users already browse the Web wirelessly while sipping lattes at Starbucks, shopping at retailers and staying at hotels.
Intel, the world's largest manufacturer of semiconductors and the dominant producer of PC processors, is counting heavily on widespread adoption of Centrino as computer users go increasingly wireless.
Only 19% of laptops were sold with wireless capability last year, but that number is expected to rise to 95% by 2005, according to the market research firm IDC.
At the heart of Centrino is the Pentium-M processor, which uses considerably less energy than comparable Pentium 4 chips, extending battery life by as much as 70%, Intel says.
"For years people have been pining for batteries that don't die in the middle of a flight, and with Centrino, Intel combines better battery technology with better power-saving technology," said Warren Wilson, an analyst with Summit Strategies.
Giving the campaign a boost, a number of companies recently announced they would offer wireless access. McDonald's Corp. on Tuesday announced high-speed wireless access at several hundred restaurants in New York, Chicago and California by year's end.
Borders Group Inc. announced a similar program, with wireless access in more than 400 Borders Books & Music stores by this summer.
Some 80 Borders stores including more than a dozen in the San Francisco Bay Area have gone wireless. Stores in the Los Angeles area will be wireless by the end of this month.
Hilton Hotels & Resorts said it would offer hot spots in 50 Hilton hotels in the next 30 days. Last month Omni Hotels said it would offer free wireless access in 30 hotels this year.