Utah-based Megahertz and its parent, 3Com, are playing a leading role in the development of a design standard for internal laptop modems that may streamline one facet of laptop redesigns and bring laptop costs down.
The cramped quarters inside the case of laptop computers has led manufacturers to design internal modems around other components. That typically means a new modem design for each laptop model makeover - which occurs about every six months.The most practical modem solution for the ongoing redesign problem has been to move the modem to a laptop's PCMCIA slot, the bay on almost all newer laptops that allows a variety of credit-card-sized devices to be switched in and out of the computer.
Modems were among the most popular devices used in PCMCIA slots after industry standards made them popular. The popularity of PCMCIA modems drove up the research and development costs for internal modems while simultaneously decreasing the demand for the internal models, which often aren't even available yet when a new laptop model is first introduced.
But a number of other devices have since been developed for use in PCMCIA slots, leading manufacturers to re-examine ways to move more modems back inside the computer to free up PCMCIA space.
Jef Graham, vice president and general manager of 3Com's Mobile Communications Division, said 3Com led the formation of a coalition of manufacturers who are now working on a standard design for internal modems, which would make them easier to install, easier to upgrade and more profitable to manufacture.
Tayne Hunsaker of Midvale-based PC Notebook likes the idea - if it can achieve wide adoption. Central to PC Notebook's marketing strategy is the ability to upgrade hardware as it becomes obsolete, increasing the usable life span of its laptops. "Any time they can go industry standard on something, everybody benefits," Hunsaker said. "That would be a really sweet thing if it catches on. The problem is, will it take a while to catch on?"
Duracell tried to standardize the laptop battery market, positioning itself to be the leading producer of standard-design laptop batteries. But battery technology was developing too fast for the industry to settle on a standard, and the Duracell products underperformed and were not widely adopted.
Increasing space constraints made it too difficult to work around the Duracell-standard configuration, Hunsaker said.
A standardized modem design has a much better chance because of the high research and development cost of designing modems around other components in laptop computer models, Hunsaker said.
"It's a supply and demand issue," he said. "Manufacturers don't want to overproduce because they'll be stuck with a component that is obsolete in six months because that model changes. If I want to order a thousand modems for a notebook, chances are (the manufacturer) has never produced a thousand."
3Com is the world's largest computer communications hardware manufacturer in the industry. It's leadership in the Mini PCI Roundtable developing the proposed standard gives the idea a good chance for industry adoption.
Megahertz was a leader in the PCMCIA modem market when it was bought by modem giant US Robotics three years ago, which was in turn bought last year by 3Com. 3Com claims the dominant share of the international market for modems, LAN cards and other computer-to-computer hardware.
3Com's Salt Lake facility is one of two 3Com plants that builds the company's Palm Pilot and is still manufacturing PCMCIA modems for laptops - 4.3 million of them this year. The potential to build an industry-standard internal modem could dramatically increase production at the Salt Lake plant, Graham said.