PCs try to keep pace with Wi-Fi revolution

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It looks like the revolution will not be televised, as far as commercials that tout how Wi-Fi is transforming the world of PCs.

In the past year, Wi-Fi has grown from an obscure and somewhat geeky technology to a near requirement. Almost every notebook personal computer shipped today, and a growing percentage of desktop PCs, arrive ready to tie into a wireless network. In coming months, the setup will get even easier, as clumsy add-ons and antennas are replaced by Wi-Fi functionality built right into the PC. Also on the horizon: devices that allow PCs, TVs, stereos and other entertainment devices to talk to each other, seamlessly and wirelessly.

"Wireless is very hot," says Ken Loyd, director of wireless and networking solutions for Gateway. "It's going to be very standard; it's going to be ubiquitous on computers."

The challenge for PC marketers is to figure out how to sell consumers on actually using Wi-Fi. With some uncertainty about how the Wi-Fi revolution will progress, these developments haven't been heralded yet with a corresponding blitz of consumer ads.

Right now there are competing standards for Wi-Fi, so consumers must navigate a Betamax vs. VHS situation until the market shakes itself out. Also, wireless networks can be difficult to set up for the average computer user.

more options for travelers

The good news is that Wi-Fi makes the most sense when a consumer already has a high-speed, broadband Internet connection at home, and that market is growing fast. The growing number of hot spots, or locations such as hotels, airports, coffee shops and restaurants offering Wi-Fi access, is also helping drive consumer interest.

Even though PC marketers are convinced Wi-Fi is a strong selling point, they're going slowly when it comes to marketing Wireless Fidelity. Some are waiting for Intel Corp. to begin marketing its new Centrino chip, which will contain enhanced wireless capabilities (see story on Page S-2).

"For the foreseeable future, there will be multiple ways of connecting [to the Internet], depending on what environment you are in," says Lara Kahler, marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. HP's goal is to show consumers how wireless technology can simplify their lives.

"It's not about `We've got this capability on a notebook or a handheld [PC]'; it's about `I'm a consumer and I want to cut the cord and create a home network. How do I do that?' It's been our focus to put the pieces together," Ms. Kahler says.

Sony Electronics shares a similar philosophy. At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, it previewed a new device enabling consumers to link their TVs and PCs wirelessly.

"We need to do a good job of explaining to users how they use [wireless technology]," says Mark Hanson, VP-general manager of marketing for Sony's Vaio PC line. "I think the technology is fairly well-established; it's just a matter of trying to get the word out and demonstrate the capabilities."

Sony will tout wireless technology as part of a corporate campaign from WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York, that's expected to break in the second quarter, Mr. Hanson says.

PROMOTION PACKAGE

At Gateway, the focus has been on promotions. In addition to making its PCs wireless-ready, Gateway markets a package of components to set up a network. It promoted the package and a special $99 price in a December free-standing insert.

Gateway is exploring the idea of a broader marketing campaign for Wi-Fi, says Mr. Loyd, but the ads would focus more on the lifestyle benefit of wireless technology rather than the product. Gateway's agency is Omnicom Group's Arnell Group, New York.

Toshiba Computer Systems Group's strategy has been to market through retail stores. It has installed several "store within a store" concepts in CompUSA outlets to promote Wi-Fi. The displays show how products from different divisions of Toshiba, such as TVs and PCs, can be networked.

Dell Computer Corp. has chosen to focus on educating consumers, says David Bowers, product marketing manager. The company has mentioned Wi-Fi in a few direct mail pieces and in some kiosks set up in malls. It's also exploring the idea of an infomercial touting notebook computers, which would mention wireless technology, Mr. Bowers says.

Even wireless computing pioneer Apple Computer has steered clear of splashy advertising promoting Wi-Fi. Though the company has offered its AirPort technology for a few years, it has chosen instead to integrate it with the rest of Apple's product marketing.

"We don't want [Wi-Fi] to be something that's novel," says Greg Joswiak, VP-hardware product marketing. "We want it to be fundamental to the way you use a computer."

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