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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

SAN FRANCISCO–Improvements to Linux have led Intel to permit Linux laptops to sport the Centrino brand for the first time.

Centrino is the chipmaker’s brand name for a three-part package for mobile computers: the Pentium M processor, a supporting chipset and a wireless chip. Although Linux can run on existing Centrino notebooks, Intel until now wouldn’t permit companies to sell Linux laptops using the Centrino logo.

The reason for the change: With the release of the 2.6.8 Linux kernel, the open-source operating system’s power management abilities now meet Intel’s requirements for Centrino notebook battery life, said Karen Regis, manager of mobile programs and promotions at the chipmaker.

“It was important to deliver what people expect out of the brand,” Regis said, speaking at the launch of the new Sonoma version of the Centrino technology.

Linux isn’t widely used on mainstream desktop and laptop computers, but Intel has joined Red Hat, Novell, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others in trying to boost the open-source operating system in the market.

That’s something of a turnaround for a company that took a year after the initial Centrino launch to release prototype Linux support for the wireless network chip. Microsoft Windows was able to use Centrino’s wireless networking immediately after its release.

This time, Intel is moving faster. The company will support Sonoma’s wireless networking with Linux within 30 days, Regis said. That support will cover both the dual-band Intel Pro/Wireless 2200 networking chip for 802.11b/g wireless networks and the tri-band Pro/Wireless 2915 chip for 802.11a/b/g networks.

IBM is a major Linux backer, but it sees only pockets of customers such as engineers and programmers with interest in Linux laptops, said Rob Herman, a program manager with the company’s ThinkPad division. IBM supports Linux from Red Hat, Novell and Turbolinux in its PCs.

For mainstream users, the Centrino branding for Linux doesn’t make much difference, but for those niches, it’s very important, Herman said.