Farewell, Centrino...We think we knew ye

Two brands saved Intel from possibly being permanently relegated to also-ran status as an innovator. "Core" is one of them; arguably, the "Core" ideal that thinking smaller can lead to better performance plus power savings, may have saved the company by itself. But there was also Centrino.

And despite that fact, consumers remain confused over the whole question of just what a "Centrino" is. No, mom and dad, it's not the processor...Well, then, what is it, son? The Centrino ideal in 2003 was that a laptop computer manufacturer could base its entire design around a set of chips, most with the Intel brand. The CPU would be at the center of that heap, and six years ago, Pentium M was the CPU Intel had intended, back before Core Microarchitecture revolutionized mobile CPUs -- back then, processor overheating was still a huge issue.

But the other chips involved -- the chipset which ran the motherboard, the networking chip, and maybe even the integrated graphics -- would jointly comprise a platform; and laptop manufacturers liked platforms because it simplified the menu for them. The decision of what chips to include became easy, there were new price breaks involved, and Intel itself would participate in the marketing -- if you built to their platform, you could be included in the marketing plan.

In six years' time, the architecture at the laptop level is changing. First of all, Intel's newest Core 2 processors bearing the i7 logo have embedded memory controllers (like AMD has had for several years), so part of the whole reason for a "chipset" at that level goes away. Second, there really isn't money to be found in chipsets anymore; Intel has typically been a player in that market, but never with any really strong success. Even when chipsets sell well, there's no margin in them.

Then there's also the fact that smaller computer devices, especially at near-handset sizes (netbooks especially) can be run with a single chip, and for Intel, Atom may be that chip. During the roughest part of the bad economy, Atom has been Intel's refuge in the storm.

So yesterday, the company announced its decision to de-emphasize the Centrino brand. As Corporate Communications Manager Bill Calder explained it in a blog post yesterday, "Intel vPro technology continues to stand for best in class security and manageability and will henceforth be paired with Intel Core in either Core i5 or Core i7 iterations...This won't happen overnight, but beginning next year, Intel business client systems will carry either the Intel Core i7 vPro processor or the Intel Core i5 vPro processor name. With this focus on Intel Core, the Centrino processor technology brand will be retired for PCs beginning next year. However, Centrino has tremendous equity as a wireless technology, so we will transition the name to our Wi-Fi and WiMAX products beginning in 2010."

You may remember vPro as Intel's business brand, which originally emphasized a computer with the capability to support the Trusted Computing Platform, a requirement by public and private sector procurement officers for encryption and authentication. The vPro launch was muffled a bit at first, since Trusted Computing was originally part of the plan for validating media files and the folks who download them -- a plan that consumers largely rejected.

More importantly, though, the retirement of Centrino is an acknowledgment by Intel that single-chip computing may be important than platforms going forward. Intel may have seen the handwriting on the wall last year, as its Centrino 2 launch appeared to go smoothly enough...just that no one really remembers it. Consumers and business buyers both are purchasing notebook PCs for their manufacturers' brands, not for the "Intel Inside" bit.

So Intel's strategy is to change the game again, as AMD is just now finding its rhythm in the platform game, having launched "Puma" in June of last year, and showing off "Tigris" and "Shrike" just last month at Computex. With ATI as part of its company, AMD needs a platform to provoke laptop manufacturers to build systems using all the chips it's capable of producing.

Intel's answer to that yesterday is, "Nah, you don't need a platform. Platforms are so 2003."

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