Software Modems

This article originally appeared on a CMP web site in 1997.

If you've been using a computer for more than six months, you've probably got a computer graveyard. You know, that little place in your closet or basement where all your obsolete computer equipment spends its last. You've upgraded or changed systems, but you just can't bear to throw that still-functioning dinosaur away.

Items like monochrome monitors, dot matrix printers, ancient CPUs with minuscule hard drives and even less RAM are all doomed never to see electrical current again. And don't forget the modems--they deserve their own shelf, with every iteration between 300Kbps and 33.6Kbps represented, physical reminders of an ongoing quest for bandwidth nirvana.

The pace of product development in today's computer industry is almost staggering, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the PC communications industry. 33.6Kbps modems have barely begun to gather dust on computer store shelves and already 56K modems are elbowing them aside. Manufacturers are quickly realizing some of their old production methods are no longer viable. Bottom line, it's becoming too expensive to incorporate performance enhancements in a product (in this case, an increase in modem speed) simply by building a new product. In addition, consumers, in their quest for faster modem speeds and new features, are fed up with constant modem installs, and they're looking for an easier route.

Enter the "soft modem". A software-based modem has a minimal hardware interface since it relies on the processing power of a PC's central processor to perform most of its functions. Instead of using a dedicated data pump, programmable digital signal processor chips are used.

Of course, software solutions aren't exactly revolutionary concepts in the modem industry. Modem vendors have been shipping flash ROM-equipped units that offered upgrades using software downloads for several years. And a couple of years ago, Intel developed Native Signal Processing, which entailed putting all parts of a multimedia application on the host CPU, creating, in effect, a "software DSP." [The product languished, though, when Microsoft "complained".]

While this technology may not be new, the processing power these soft modems need is. The relatively recent availability of faster chips (Intel's MMX, AMD's K6, etc.) has finally enabled the software modem to make a more official debut.

According to Patrick Casey, marketing director for the software products division in Motorola's Information Systems Group, "MMX is definitely accelerating soft modem technology. The fact that processors are now powerful enough for all the real-time signal processing that's required to do modem algorithms opens the door to a number of applications--communications technology is just one."

Motorola currently holds the pole position in the race toward a software-based communications technology. In fact, as early as September of 1996, the company announced its plans for a variety of soft modem products, including xDSL and cable modems. In February of this year, Motorola announced it was licensing its V.34 software modem technology to LSI Logic Corp. LSI has said it will embed the soft modems in its custom ASICs.

To date, only two other software modem companies, Israel's SmartLink (whose president, Benjamin Maytal, developed the MMX instruction set while working for Intel) and Milpitas, Calif.-based PCTel have ported their soft modem technology to the Intel Pentium platform. SmartLink recently announced its pact with Analog Devices Inc. to embed modem functionality in an audio codec chip. These partnerships are partly in response to Intel's claim that Pentium processors with MMX instruction-set extensions are all that is needed for advanced modem support.

Soft Modems=Soft Price
In the near-term, soft modems will be primarily an OEM product. "Because the soft modem does place a fair amount of demand on a system, at least as they exist today" Casey explains, "we thought it would be prudent to shake down the performance of the system with the OEM before we put it on the market."

Will Strauss, president of Arizona-based Forward Concepts, is the first to applaud this caution. "A soft modem running on a pre-55c Pentium that's not MMX," he cautions, "can eat up to at least 50% of your processor. If you're moving a lot of heavy stuff in the downstream while you're playing a game, you'll soon have a 286 machine, and that won't be very satisfying."

However, the new MMX instruction set gives the soft modem a much-needed bounce--with an MMX machine, you'll only lose about 25% of your processing speed. One consolation for any lost processing power has to be cost savings. Since they require fewer parts and less packaging, soft modems are economical ways to give the modem animals that comprise today's computer-buying public the communications capabilities they crave at a lower price. The OEMs lower their production costs and pass the lower prices on to consumers.

"Price and price only will sell this technology to Joe six-pack," Strauss maintains. "Of course, he's giving up a part of his processing power, and if he's using a system under 200Mhz, that part could be significant."

Motorola is addressing this issue by strongly recommending a minimum system configuration of a 150Mhz Pentium. "At the end of 1996, this would have been a high-end system," Casey says, "but by the end of this year, it will become a low-end system. So basically, the CPU load issue will go away by the time we get to 1998."

Another issue that's going to go away will be the modem graveyard in your basement. Casey admits that in market research conducted by Motorola, "it became readily apparent that users were getting a little resentful that their technology was going out of date so fast. These people made it clear that they really valued the idea of keeping their machines up-to-date through simple software upgrades."

So, even though the speed of technology development shows no signs of slowing, at least the latest communications upgrade can be downloaded, either from a diskette or from a Web site, not installed. Casey says the Internet has certainly played an important role in the advancement of soft modem technology--faster access speeds mean faster download times and more online-savvy users mean less fear and loathing about venturing where once only techies dared to tread.

Not only does this DSP-based technology have important implications for the future of modem technology, but it could also produce a shift of epic proportions in the computing industry as a whole. As users demand more mobile, multimedia interaction devices (PDAs, "smart" phones, etc.), standard computing devices could be left in the dust, a concept that must give many people in the computer industry a bad case of hives.

"If you're standing still," Motorola's Casey says, "this technology certainly poses a threat. The hardware vendor's challenge is to add functionality. The real competition is going to come from the increasing power of the CPU. I think that by the year 2000, we'll have a heck of a time distinguishing between what are recognized as discrete subsystems (i.e., separate audio, video and communications capabilities). All these subsytems are going to start rapidly blurring together."

That can only mean one thing--time to clear out your computer/modem graveyard and start getting attached to your computer. Now that's a revolutionary concept!

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© Lisa M. Moore
May not be reproduced in whole or part without my written permission.