Lenovo bolsters Xohm with WiMax-ready laptops

Device support is critical, but the real test may be how well WiMax works once use ramps up, says one analyst

BALTIMORE -- WiMax supporters converged here today to celebrate Sprint Nextel Corp.'s recent citywide launch of its Xohm wireless service and to announce a range of new devices -- including the majority of Lenovo's laptop line -- that will operate over the new WiMax network.

The cell phone handset maker Nokia Corp. and laptop makers attended the event, sponsored by Intel Corp. and Sprint Nextel's Xohm unit, to show off several new devices that incorporate WiMax chip sets, operating with download speeds of between 2Mbit/sec. and 4Mbit/sec.

In addition to Lenovo, Sprint officials said laptop makers Acer, Asus and Toshiba would have embedded WiMax models available by the end of the year. Dell Panasonic and Sony have committed to embed WiMax in their laptops starting in 2009, they said.

With Xohm now blanketing Baltimore -- and Chicago, Washington and three other cities set to follow with rollouts -- Lenovo found the timing right to announce that embedded WiMax chip sets would be added to its ThinkPad and IdeaPad lines, said David Critchley, worldwide manager of ThinkPads. More than three-quarters of the dozens of ThinkPad models Lenovo makes will be made WiMax-capable over the next 30 days.

"We expect Xohm to add WiMax cities every quarter at a nice clip," Critchley told Computerworld. "With WiMax in major population centers, we've anticipated [WiMax] will be broad enough and widespread enough that we thought it was an important step to include it in our notebooks."

Lenovo's commitment is significant to the future of WiMax, being that the computer maker is the fourth largest seller of laptops globally and has a wide reach into businesses with ThinkPad, and homes with IdeaPad, analysts said. The cheapest Lenovo laptop that will have embedded WiMax is the recently introduced SL500 ThinkPad, which starts at $720. The WiMax chip will add about $60 to the price of a laptop, Critchley said.

Lenovo was hoping for faster WiMax network rollouts, Critchley said. "It hasn't come fast enough," he said, referring to the Xohm testing laboratory, which must review each product before it can be released for use on the network. "Xohm has said they will expand [review capability] and get better as times gets on, but they have a lot of work to do with all the products that are expected."

Lenovo's ThinkPad X301, T400, SL300 and SL500 will offer embedded WiMax as an option immediately. Later this year, a WiMax option will be expanded to the ThinkPad W500, W700, SL400, X200 and IdeaPad Y530. Many of the laptops will have multiple wireless radios, pairing WiMax with Wi-Fi and cellular broadband networks. The Lenovo notebooks will use Intel Centrino 2 chips, code-named Echo Peak, combined a WiMax/Wi-Fi module, Lenovo officials said.

Meanwhile, Clearwire Corp., which hopes to finalize a joint venture with Sprint to run the Xohm network by year's end, demonstrated WiMax mobile capabilities last week at WiMax World in Chicago. This demonstration included laptops with Samsung WiMax air cards, but not actual embedded radios.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Lenovo might be offering the new WiMax laptops with a price subsidy from Intel. The sweetener would help prime the WiMax market, much the same way makers did with the emergence of Wi-Fi, he said.

"Every time a vendor gets into a new market, [the question becomes] how do you build a critical mass of users? You pump stuff into the system to get it out there," Gold said. "If the volumes of devices are low, it costs Intel a fortune to produce the chips."

The way WiMax will succeed is not only through having a network that works with many users, but also by "getting very aggressive on price," Gold said.

So far, Sprint's announcements about daily user costs and other plans seems to be "on par" with cost from cable and DSL providers, Gold said.

He added that Xohm, which will be part of a new Clearwire following a merger with Sprint, will also face some network competitors. With the economic downturn, Gold also questioned how much consumers will be willing to spend on WiMax.

Ultimately, the biggest test for Xohm won't be the number of devices that support it, but how well it works when many users are logged onto a single antenna at once. "I'm from Missouri, so show me a real working system with lots of users on it," Gold said. "It's not that the technology is weak, but the problem is knowing if hundreds of users on one or two antennas can bang on the system and it will still work."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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