The modem is set to become as standard a feature of PCs as stereos have become in motor cars. And just as motor manufacturers couldn't have foreseen CDs, PCs will never play everyone's favourite tune. David Binning investigates.
Reports of the death of the stand-alone modem have been greatly exaggerated. When PC manufacturers added modems to their growing list of "tick-a-box" options, many thought people would simply stop buying them. Modems had become a commodity tacked on to the PC.
Similar to the Microsoft software running on 99 per cent of them, the technology started to become an invisible cost within the whole package.
Two years ago the death knell was sounded for the stand-alone modem market, and with good reason.
Firstly, PC manufacturers began adapting the technology for the PC motherboard. Secondly, in terms of speed, modems had hit the end of the road, according to Graham Penn, general manager of research at analyst IDC.
Admittedly, the jump from 33Kbps to 56Kbps speeds was the biggest jump in the history of modem technology. But the pedal was now flat to the board. 56Kbps was as fast as copper phone lines could push downstream. So while users rubbed their hands at the prospect of better performance, modem manufacturers were "running out of bells and whistles to offer", Penn said.
But that was two years ago. Sure, many modem companies have gone out of business in Australia and the rest of the world but plenty of smart ones maintain a healthy pulse. The reality is that aside from giant US modem manufacturer Hayes - now officially history after its third application for Chapter 11 - there have been very few big modem companies to bite the dust, according to Penn.
Perhaps the best reason for this is that the need for speed, and to a lesser degree price, has drifted into the background of what is now a rapidly expanding technological picture. Users are not only demanding affordable modems that enable them to suck data down from the Internet without the wait, they also want to access complex multimedia with the same ease. Businesses, on the other hand, are demanding more sophisticated features with better reliability.
"While built-in modems will make sense for many users, the challenge for modem technology is as present as ever," said Rick Spielrein, founder of Melbourne-based Interlink Electronics and once inaugural member of the Australian Modem Manufacturers Association.
Interlink got out of the modem business a few years ago, Speilrein said, but he emphasised that the market is yet to realise its full potential. The Australian modem industry is now waiting for communications providers to deploy the necessary equipment at their exchanges that will support new generations of technologies now common throughout Europe, he added.
IDC's Penn agrees. If services such as ADSL (asymetric digital subscriber line), ISDN (integrated services digital network) and cable networks begin to take off in Australia, whole new generations of modem technologies and market opportunities will be spawned, he said. ADSL, while available in New Zealand is yet to arrive in Australia, while ISDN and cable services rate amongst the most expensive in the world.
Melanie Feez, broadband manager with Telstra's Convergent Business division, said that Telstra is planning on providing "ubiquitous access to broadband services in Australia", but admits that Australia has fallen behind Europe and the United States.
"Australia is one of the few countries where users have to buy their own equipment," Feez said.
In other countries, equipment is rented out in the same way that telephones are.
Feez admitted that cost has been a major barrier to the uptake of cable services in Australia. For starters, subscribers must first fork out close to $500 for a cable modem. However, she claims that demand for Telstra's cable service is as strong as ever, with a 100 per cent increase in subscribers expected over the next four months.
But Penn is concerned that Australia's slow adoption of new communications technologies places pressure on modem companies that are dependent on sales in Australia. "Most end users recognise that the 56Kbps modem is as fast as the copper phone line will allow it to be," Penn said.
It is unlikely that the market will disappear altogether, he added, but "most people now see it as an upgrade market. People are finding better things to spend their money on."
A question of suitability
However, for the expanding group of hardcore Internet users and Net-savvy businesses, the "standard" modem is arguably no more suitable than the built-in car stereo for fans of thumping Saturday night motor disco.
US motherboard giant Supermicro is working with Intel to provide enhanced voice, data and video functionality to its motherboards, according to Ken Lowe, managing director of Sydney-based Supermicro distributor BCN Technology. Eventually, PC manufacturers will be able to offer all the functionality of a stand-alone modem on the motherboard, he said.
The mass popularity of the Internet poses a raft of new challenges for computer vendors. Users want to buy online, they want free Net access and the vendor that gives it to them cheapest and fastest wins.
And so, Lowe believes, it's only a matter of time before PC and chip manufacturers fully absorb the modem. "The modem is gone," he claimed.
But the issue of reliability looms over built-in modems. Electronic forms such as the Internet are now assuming mission-critical status within many organisations.
For the company considering the leap into videoconferencing for instance, the prospect of letting their PC take care of everything takes on a new perspective.
The issues of reliability and support are now far more serious, said Perry James-Brennan, founder and director of Melbourne-based modem manufacturer Auslinx.
"Internal modems are becoming more and more difficult to support," he said.
Because of their increased reliance on software, built-in modems are more susceptible to crashes meaning that PCs carrying them often need to be rebooted to get back online. Further, if a built-in modem breaks, the whole PC is off for repair - typically a costly exercise. "The built-in modem was actually a blessing for modem manufacturers," James-Brennan said.
Communications technologies are now more diverse and sophisticated than they have ever been. Whereas two years ago there was little to distinguish the needs of various modem users, today's communications landscape has left them spoilt for choice, he said.
"Consider this against the one-size-fits-all model of the PC manufacturer and you begin to take built-in modems less seriously."
One of the more notable developments in modem technology this year has been Universal Serial Bus modems, now offered by virtually every modem company.
The USB port enables users to transmit data, as well as voice and fax. USB modems also have one chord for power and data, eliminating clutter - a big plus for the user on the move.
Gerald Macos, Asia-Pacific marketing manager for modem and communications equipment manufacturer Xircom, said that the stand-alone modem market is far from dead. Ironically, the company is 5 per cent owned by Intel, the company BCN's Lowe believes will eventually kill the little boxes.
Xircom focuses most of its energy these days on building modems for mobile computer users. Macos said that while just about every PC bought today has a modem built in, very few mobile computers do.
"The mobile market represents a massive opportunity," Macos said. Users want to be able to move around, send e-mail to a range of devices including mobile phones, as well as simply dial into the Internet or corporate intranet, he added.
Users also want video on demand, audio, voice over IP, fax, GSM capabilities and so on. In the business world, companies want to be able to monitor Internet usage patterns.
Most modem manufacturers interviewed by ARN indicated they either had products offering these capabilities or were in the process of developing them.
"Modem companies are becoming communications companies," Interlink's Spielrein said.
The modem industry followed a similar path to that of the PC industry, he added. "Margins dwindled while the demand for support didn't."
As a result, several small modem companies fell by the wayside. While big communications companies like 3Com count modems as a significant part of their business, very few technology companies have survived on modems alone, he said. "If vendors say 'we are a modem company' they will die."
Companies have to think of themselves as manufacturers of communications solutions, of which modems are a part, he added. This is becoming clearer to those companies targeting corporate markets.
James-Brennan said that only two months ago modems accounted for 100 per cent of Auslinx's business. That figure is now 80 per cent as the company moves into complementary technologies such as voice over IP gateways, encryption, firewalls, proxy servers and switching equipment.
He added that the balance between home and corporate business is shifting towards the latter although the projected growth in home Internet banking as well as a drift towards online-oriented supermarket systems would fuel both. The company sold 25,000 modems last month, making it Australia's most successful modem producer.
If the modem industry truly is dead, it may very well soon be resurrected.
What's new from . . . AusLinx
Melbourne-based modem designer and manufacturer AusLinx has recently released a piece of hardware the company says will bring "a little sex" back into the "geeky" hardware equation.
The Little Devil, AusLinx' next generation of 56Kbps Fax/Modem machines, is indeed a sexier and smaller member of AusLinx's well-known Tasmanian Devil family that, according to AusLinx, offers "substantially faster speeds" without requiring the user to invest in digital technology.
Being a next-generation Universal Serial Bus (USB) 56Kbps Fax/Modem, the Little Devil enables image-heavy Web pages or sound and video files to be transferred to the end user's PC at twice the speed of current 33.6Kbps, the company statement claims.
This latest offering from AusLinx has no power cable, as it uses power from a PC to which it is connected via a USB cable.
Fully compliant with USB specification 1.0Portable size suitable for both desktop and mobile computer usersV.90, K56Flex 56Kbps dual mode supportLow power consumption and automatic sleep modeWindows 98, Windows 95/OSR2 and Windows 2000 compatibleTelephone answering machine function supportData and fax application software for Windows includedThe Little Devil sells at an RRP of $199.
Tel (03) 9830 6477
Tel (02) 9929 9677
What's new from . . . Paradise
US provider of video graphics adapters Paradise is a new player in the Australian modem market.
The company itself only recently diversified its operation to include several comprehensive multimedia solutions in its offerings.
In Australia, its products are distributed through Sydney-headquartered distributor Alepine Peripherals, whose catalogue describes Paradise's WaveCom 56K Modem Pro as an indication that "there are definitely good things on the way" from the American company.
The WaveCom 56K Modem Pro has the ability to receive faxes and voicemail with a PC off, with a call alert function notifying the user of the incoming voicemail and faxes. Its all-in-one fax/voicemail system can store more than 20 faxes or voicemails, but can also serve as speakerphone or a videoconferencing tool. The modem was designed with the chip set from Lucent Technologies.
56K External plug & play modem PRO
Data/fax/voice communications software
RJ11 Telephone cable
RS232 Serial cable
V.90 ITU K56flex standard
Full Duplex speakerphone
Windows 95/98/ NT 4.0 compatible
WaveCom 56K External Modem PRO sells at $268 (ex tax).
Tel (02) 9418 3322
Tel (07) 3217 6622
What's new from . . . Leadtek
Distributed by Sydney-based BCN Technology, Leadtek's range of PC products and video- conferencing solutions include the WinSurf series of modems developed by the company's R&D team that makes up 40 per cent of Leadtek's total workforce.
Leadtek WinSurf V.90 FVD modem serves a triple role of modem/fax/answering communication machine.
The WinSurf V.90 FVD allows any message format, such as pure text, binary files, voicemail and real-time video, to be communicated through a telephone line.
Leadtek's modem has fax send and receive capabilities and can be operated as a full feature digital answering machine.
Its downstream data transmission allows speeds of up to 56Kbps. The system also features a duplex echo-free speaker phone.
V.90 56 Kbps data transmission
115.2 Kbps hardware based data compression throughputRS232 interfaceElectronic mail boxSound card with microphone recommendedWindows 3.1/95/98 or NT compatibleBCN TechnologyTel (02) 9417 3699What's new from . . . Zoom TtelephonicsZoom Telephonics designs and manufactures a broad range of communications products, including a series of dual-mode fax modems.
The Zoom 56K Dualmode is a high-speed V.90 voice faxmodem that has the ability to receive data at speeds of up to 56Kbps. The modem incorporates both the V.90 ITU 56Kbps standard and K56flex to achieve download speeds nearly twice as fast as a conventional analog modem, providing fast access to the Internet and local area networks over a standard telephone line.
Zoom lists TelstraDuet support that automatically routes voice, fax and data calls and ZoomGuard lightning protection among valuable additional features of all Dualmode models.
V.90 and K56flex technology for up to 56Kbps data downloadsFlash memory and Reprogrammable Digital Sinal Processor (DSP) for easy software upgradesVideophone-readyWindows 3.1/95/NT, DOS and Macintosh platformsPlug & Play compatibleFax speeds of up to 14.44KbpsFive-year warrantyZoom TelephonicsTel (07) 3257 3669What's new from . . . XircomAs a mobile computing specialist, Xircom takes pride in its reputation as an innovative communications company that counts products such as the RealPort Integrated PC Card among its "brainchildren".
Eliminating the problem of lost or broken cables out of the PC Card usage equation, Xircom's RealPort Card is claimed to provide robust and reliable communications by integrating connectors directly into the card, thus improving the functionality of products such as the company's RealPort Modem 56. As a result, the modem can provide reliable cable and hassle-free connectivity. The modem itself supports speeds of up to 56Kbps and operates on a range of network platforms, inluding Windows 95/98 and NT.
Claiming to have a product with "the lowest cost of ownership", Xircom also offers several service and support programs, as well as a limited lifetime warranty for the product.
Speeds of up to 56Kbps using either V.90 or K56flex standardsIntegrated PC cardWake-on-Ring detects incoming calls and allows receipt of data when the system is powered downV.34 of up to 33.6KbpsDigital Shield protection from high-current digital telephone linesBatterySave power management systemXircomTel (02) 9911 7790CompetitionARN and AusLinx are giving two readers an opportunity to win AusLinx's Tasmanian Devil 56K modem reviewed in this feature. For your chance to win, e-mail your funniest modem or devil joke to tamara_ plakalo@idg. com.au.
The winners will be announced in ARN on the 9th of June.