Intel's Centrino platform has been a big hit with the enterprise not because its Wi-Fi radio is the best, but more because there are clear advantages to increased standardization of wireless network clients. When it comes to wireless, Intel gets high grades for commitment, in marketing most of all, but also in product development and venture funding. The company's recently announced Digital Communities initiative, designed to enhance the operational effectiveness of local governments, is mostly about community wireless networks, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Cisco is one of Intel's partners in the Digital Communities initiative. While Intel dominates wireless clients, Cisco is king of enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructure, with 53 percent market share according to a recent report by Aaron Vance of Synergy Research Group. The company's WLAN infrastructure strategy, which has two product lines based on differing architectures, is a little confusing these days. Cisco spins it as something good for customers, providing them with two alternatives. But it's more a concession to the company's desire to satisfy both a loyal Aironet customer base, those who aren't ready to rip-and-replace, while also catering to technology evaluators in many greenfield environments, where newer, more manageable WLAN system designs are often preferred.
Over time, Cisco will find a way to better rationalize its WLAN infrastructure strategy. In the mean time, there's plenty of work to do to try and overcome the fundamental problems its enterprise customers face when rolling out scalable and secure wireless LANs. Central to the problem is that irascible standards-based 802.11 client, which lacks many important capabilities in areas like roaming, security, load-balancing and quality of service. Painfully slow progress in the many 802.11 task groups working on various dimensions of the problem led the Wi-Fi Alliance to roll out its WPA security initiative in advance of standards. It also led Cisco to establish its CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) program, which pushes a set of proprietary client extensions that overcome limitations in standards-based systems.
When Cisco introduced CCX a little over two years ago, all the wireless silicon providers quickly signed on, announcing their commitment to implementing CCX on their clients. It was easy to see this as a Cisco power play right out of the Microsoft playbook, an end-run around standards that delivered benefits to client devices from virtually every manufacturer--but benefits that were only realizable if you had Cisco Wi-Fi infrastructure.