Wireless networks in airports, hotels and coffee shops could soon be a lot easier to find and use.
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent in San Jose
The makers of wireless networking hardware are allying with the companies setting up commercial wi-fi services to standardise the ways that computers join and swap data across these networks.
ID technologies coming to laptops
The initiative should make it much easier for itinerant laptop owners to sit down and start using wireless networks wherever they find them by making only a minimum of changes to their computer's set-up.
Eventually identification technologies included in laptops and handheld computers could mean that users get one bill for all the separate wireless networks they have used while travelling.
Many airports, railways stations, hotels, coffee shops and fast food restaurants are being kitted out with wireless networks by companies such as Megabeam, BT and T-Mobile to let travellers and commuters passing through check e-mail, surf the web or log into their company's computers.
Signing up for these hotspot services and getting your computer to work with them can be a lengthy business.
This helps hotspot operators control who can use them but dents the chance that lots of people will sign up as they need to have accounts with every service along a route and tweak laptop settings every time they enter the catchment area of a new hotspot.
The makers of wireless hardware and hotspot operators have kicked off a series of initiatives that should make it easier to sign up and use wi-fi nets from many different companies.
The Wi-Fi Zone initiative establishes basic specifications for commercial hotspots to make it as easy as possible for people to connect to networks they find in shops or airports.
Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile platforms group, said that 90% of laptops will be wi-fi enabled by 2005.
He said Intel's Centrino technology will drive some of this growth as it integrates all the parts for a wi-fi network card on to innards of a laptop.
But, he added, Intel realised that it had to more to make wi-fi work in the real world to ensure that laptop users could use the wireless networking ability of their machine.
As part of the Wi-fi Zone Initiative, Intel is working with the makers of hubs that act as co-ordination points for wireless networks, to ensure that Centrino laptops work well with the network hardware.
Wi-Fi Zone sets up basic specifications for hotspots
The initiative will produce a sticker panel for walls and shop windows that will denote wi-fi networks that conform to basic interoperability standards.
Letting people know that wi-fi hotspots are nearby and that it should be easy to connect should boost take-up, said Mr Chandrasekher.
"Almost universally hotspots are not marked," he said, "it's a huge convenience to be marking the locations that are hotspots."
Intel is also working on other initiatives to embed identification data into laptops so people get only one bill no matter how many different wi-fi networks they use as they travel.
Mr Chandrasekher said the company was also investing in firms installing hotspots around the world. In the US Intel has partnered with AT&T and expects to set up more than 20,000 hotspots across the country over the next few years.
"It's a rising tide that will lift all boats," said Mr Chandrasekher.