There is no disputing the fact that the modem industry spent 1997 on a roller coaster of highs and lows, with companies merging, folding and struggling to make ends meet in arguably the fiercest price war of the year. But 1998 promises to be different. Helen Cousens spoke to those in the know about where the modem industry is at, and where it is headed . . .
The biggest news of 1997, as we all know, was the 56Kbps modem war and all the issues surrounding it. Previously, the low-end modem market was relatively stable with 33.6Kbps being the "biggest and best" speed attainable. The technol-ogy supporting it too was widely understood. When the 56Kbps technology entered the market, buyers and resellers alike found it easy to be confused by the conflicting standards. Cam Wayland, business strategy manager at Banksia/ NetComm, believes US Robotics and Rockwell made the mistake of introducing immature, not to mention incompatible, technologies that worked at only one end of the equation.
Confusion over who would benefit from 56Kbps, which ISPs supported which technology, and the doubt surrounding the likelihood of actually reaching the speed of 56Kbps, meant buyers simply held off purchasing and the channel began to feel the pinch. What followed was a pattern of modem manufacturers and distributors having large amounts of inventory sitting in warehouses. Prices were lowered to clear the stock, sparking a price war and squeezing company margins.
Mark Kofahl, national sales and marketing manager of distribution company Tecksel, says much of the confusion over 56Kbps technology was seen at reseller level. He believes it was a lack of knowledge of the issues and facts on behalf of the sales people that affected the number of units sold.
Kofahl also said that buyers, to a large degree, could not find many compelling or key reasons why 56Kbps would be of more benefit to them than the 33.6Kbps modems they already had. This is not to say that no 56Kbps modems were bought last year, or that some areas of the industry didn't prosper and grow.
Searching the crystal ball. So what are the industry's predictions for this year? Well, it seems we are in a watershed period at the moment. At the time of writing, the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) draft of its standard on 56Kbps was about to be released (see related story on page 42), and once this happens, the modem industry will be given the information it needs to proceed with confidence.
And that is the key: last year both the channel and end users were plagued with a lack of confidence and consequently, sales suffered. So not only is the ITU issuing a draft of a technical standard, it will also be restoring confidence to the modem market. Even though the standard won't be ratified until the third quarter - a long time in the modem industry - it is useful to remember the standard on 33.6Kbps has only recently been ratified. The most important thing for resellers is the draft standard. Once the standard is agreed on, manufacturers can go full steam ahead and the ratification will be, most assume, merely a formality.
The prediction is that once the standard is announced and product starts to ship, the industry will regain its confidence and all will be well. Kofahl added that once positive feedback - that 56Kbps is working well in the field - starts to filter through, sales will increase.
One constant danger, however, is that Australia, to some degree, has a tendency to follow US trends. So if there is a negative response of any kind in the US, there may be a ricochet effect in Australia. But hopefully, with upgrades able to be downloaded from the Internet, this will not be the case.
Learn your ABCs. There seems to be a concensus among the modem industry that the key to a successful year lies in a good understanding of the issues at the reseller level. Cam Wayland sees it this way:
"The biggest issue is educating resellers to get 56Kbps clear in their minds, and to understand it," he said.
"The end user is influenced by the people in the store, and there is a need to concentrate on educating the resellers about what the standard means, and about what you can and can't upgrade."
Making it mobile. PCMCIAs or PC Cards are set to experience a great growth in 1998. Kofahl says the reasons for this are fairly simple: once the standard is released end users will have more confidence investing in 56Kbps, and since no notebooks have 56Kbps modems built in, the market for 56Kbps PCMCIAs will be strong.
Also, Kofahl believes the opportunity to make a decent margin on PCMCIAs is definitely possible.
To date there are only a couple of 56Kbps PCMCIAs on the Australian market, but this is set to change within the next couple of quarters.
Going remote. Hayes' merger with Access Beyond, and Compaq's merger with Microcom, prompts the question: is it mere coincidence that some companies are joining up with remote access experts? Mark Kofahl thinks not.
"A lot of people in the industry see remote access as increasingly important, especially with the Internet, and end users now realise the PC can be connected to the wider world, including the workplace. This will be one of the key drivers of the modem business over the next few years," Kofahl said.
Australian versus offshore manufacturingThe question of Australian versus offshore manufacturing is one that obviously doesn't pertain to the modem industry only. However, it is something to consider in this respect, especially because there are benefits to be gained from both approaches.
Maestro Digital Communications, based at Bungendore just outside the ACT, has made it a priority to have as much Australian product as possible. Chris Darling, managing director at Maestro, stresses that the company's ability to be an Australian manufacturer took a lot of planning.
Time for argument
A big argument for manufacturing offshore lies in the lower production costs. But Maestro believes that there are significant benefits to be found in manufacturing locally. One is the fact that the manufacturing process is totally under its control - which gives confidence and security in the finished product and makes quality control less of an issue.
Secondly, the advantages in terms of cost that are found in manufacturing overseas are, the company believes, offset by the possibility of manufacturing problems that may only come to light once the product arrives in Australia. This would make lead times longer, ultimately adding to the total cost of the process.
At present, Maestro manufactures the majority of its product in Newcastle, although it has recently opened another manufacturing facility at its headquarters in Bungendore, and it is here that its 56Kbps products are manufactured.
Another perceived difference between local manufacturing and overseas manufacturing is, according to Darling, the "subtle but distinctive" differences in circuitry that "add up to considerable differences in performance, especially when applied to country areas where performance is more borderline".
It is also in this respect, he said, that local manufacturing has the ability to make design changes meet these specific long-distance needs.
Talking about the modem market as a whole, Maestro believes the modem business has been "released from a vice-like grip. All are feeling the market has been slow, but there are improvements to be had with 56Kbps. There is no penalty to buying 56Kbps now."
Netexpress from Simple Computing
Netexpress 56 is Simple Computing's solution for 56Kbps modems. Released last year, the modem has an RRP of $229 and uses Rockwell's K56flex technology. It comes with afive year warranty and technical support.
Tel (02) 9427 8988 Fax (02) 9427 8966
Dynalink's new 56Kbps modems
Dynalink Modems has announced the addition of two new 56Kbps modem ranges to its line-up: the Dynalink VoicePro56K PC modems, and the Dynalink 56K PCMCIA fax/data modem.
The Dynalink VoiceCard56Pro and VoiceDesk56Pro offer voice, fax and data features, and can reach downstream speeds of up to 56Kbps when connecting to suitably equipped ISPs. The VoicePro range's new transfer rates were designed to attract the multitude of end users who download a far greater quantity of information than they send, and are seeking a solution to high-speed Internet access demands.
The Dynalink 56Kbps range uses Rockwell's K56Flex technology and is Flash-Rom upgradeable to the ratified ITU standard when available. The VoicePro56 range is Windows 95 Plug and Play-compliant, and features support for Telstra's FaxStream DUET system. Windows 95 drivers, all necessary cables and Cheyenne Bitware voice/fax/data software are standard.
The Dynalink VoiceDesk56Pro external voice/fax/data modem is available at $239 RRP and the Internal VoiceCard56Pro voice/fax/data modem is $219 RRP.
The Dynalink CreditCard56 PCMCIA 56Kbps fax/data modem is billed as an ideal companion for those on the move. The compact notebook modem is Windows 95 Plug and Play compliant (PCMCIA standard) and includes all necessary cables, drivers and fax/data software on floppy disk.
The CreditCard56 incorporates a 56Kbps chipset from Lucent Technology and supports all speeds up to and including 56Kbps on the downstream from suitably equipped ISPs, using the K56flex protocol. It is also Flash-Rom upgradeable to the ratified ITU standard.
The Dynalink CreditCard56 has an RRP of $240 excluding tax.
Both new products are available now.
Tel 1800 357 253 Fax 1800 063 962
WebRamp M3 for the same marketplace
Banksia's WebRamp M3 provides small to medium businesses with the ability to have high-speed Internet access shared by multiple users on an office network.
It integrates an in-built router, four-port 10Base-T Ethernet hub and three modem ports (supporting any mix of modem speeds), and has an RRP of $995. The WebRamp M3 also won the Best Networking and Com-munications Product Award at PC IT last year.
The WebRamp M3 allows small businesses to simultaneously go online without the necessity of single modems on each desktop. One of the obvious benefits of this is in cost: with the WebRamp M3 a small business needs only one Internet account and one phone line. Higher speeds are reached because of the aggregation of the three modems, resulting in less time spent online.
56Kbps from Advanced Portable TechnologiesAdvanced Portable Technologies has brought 56Kbps technology to the mobile market with the TDK Global Freedom 5660 56Kbps fax/modem PC card with mobile phone connectivity.
Using Rockwell's technology (and upgradeable to the agreed standard), the mobile phone connectivity option allows users to connect via digital PCS mobile phones or analog phones. The card has a five-year warranty and can be used legally around the world (it's in TDK's Global Class product family) as it can be configured to the differing requirements of phone systems in various countries.
The RRP is $499 including tax.
Advance Portable Technologies
Tel (02) 9906 3800 Fax (02) 94394629
Customer confidence to rise as 56Kbps standard on the wayby Molly FurzerModem vendors are expecting stronger consumer confidence in 56Kbps modem technology with the announce-ment that a 56Kbps standard is on the way.
A committee of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) voted last year, on a draft 56Kbps standard which incorporates both 3Com's x2 and Rockwell's K56flex technologies. While the full standard is due for ratification by September, the draft is expected to be endorsed early this year.
The draft standard, currently known as V.pcm (which stands for Pulse Code Modulation), once endorsed is hoped to remove confusion in the marketplace and increase 56Kbps modem sales.
Cam Wayland said the news is a step in the right direction.
"Last year there was six months of confusion for customers and ISPs to nobody's benefit - both of the proprietary standards did the same thing anyway and two standards vying for customers' attention meant they tended to buy nothing," he said.
"There will be a huge increase in customer confidence and ISPs who were sitting on the fence - looking at which way to go - will start making decisions about implementing 56Kbps technology," Wayland said.
Many vendors have already pledged support for the proposed standard and will release upgrades for software-upgradeable modems once Rockwell and 3Com release a version of the code.
by Iain Payten
Zoom Telephonics Australia has released its new model 33.6Kbps and 56Kbps Internal Voice/Fax/Data/ Video modems.
Zoom FaxModems support all recognised international and Bell standards from 300bps-33.6Kbps. The 56Kbps FaxModem also supports 56Kbps receive/36Kbps send with Rockwell's 56Kflex technology.
The Zoom 56Kbps FaxModem supports a software upgradeable controller and digital signal processor for easy upgrades.
The units support 2 RJ-11 telephone sockets to allow for handset attachment. The modems support Plug and Play.
Additional features include Zoom's ZoomGuard lightning protection to provide superior protection against lightning - the number one cause of modem failure.
The Zoom FaxModem also has built-in Zoom/Video full motion colour video capture hardware and a Zoom/Video CAM jack, allowing the end user to experience real-time video phone calls, video mail, and image capture and transmission over standard phone lines or the internet (with a Video Cam camera plug-in).
Software supplied is Communicate! LITE, available in 16 and 32-bit versions.