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  • The Mac Hardware Report: So Where’s My Modem?

    July 30th, 2005

    Years ago, if you wanted to get online with your Mac, you had to buy an external modem. For portables, you bought the PC card version. But someone eventually realized that Internet access was a perfectly normal part of your computing experience, so modems became standard issue. In fact, the number of people who never go online is a small minority, so you’ve come to expect a modem jack on your new Mac.

    But things are changing. More and more people have converted to broadband, and the chirps and buzzes many of you customarily hear when you connect to the Internet will eventually become relics of the past. But not yet. As of the end of 2004, some 54.69% of home users in the U.S. used some sort of broadband connection. Most use cable for Internet access, but the local phone providers have cut the price of their DSL services to the bone, less than dial-up in many cases. A price war is in the making, although the cable providers are, for the most part, ramping up speed to retain customers.

    Those figures mean, however, that 45.31% of U.S. homes still connect by dial-up, and not all use 56K modems. In some cases, particularly for folks who live in rural areas, broadband may be limited to a costly satellite connection. What’s more, millions of people don’t see the need for faster connections, simply because their Internet excursions are limited to occasional email from friends or family and perhaps a commerce site or two. It’s going to be difficult to change their opinions, and it may take years before market penetration reaches the point where dial-up is no longer a significant factor. And don’t get me started about faxing.

    Modems are cheap, particularly when the circuitry is hard wired onto the motherboard, so why would a computer company scrimp on this important feature, except to cut costs to the bone? Why indeed! Yet, Apple is doing just that with some of its Macs, and the internal modem isn’t something you can just plug in later on. Your choice is to either place a custom order for the Mac you want, or choose from one of the small number of external USB-based modems that are still available.

    Now maybe Apple believes that the vast majority of Mac users have broadband, so analog modems are no longer needed. Consider this week’s Mac mini update. You get a modem, standard, on the entry-level $499 model. But if you opt for the faster models with larger hard drives, the modem is a $29 built-to-order option. Is that supposed to be the trade-off for getting 512MB RAM standard? I suppose Apple might believe that if you have AirPort, you don’t need dial-up? But what if you don’t use an AirPort Extreme Base Station with built-in modem? What if your broadband connection goes down, which happens all-too-often for some of you, and you have a cheap dial-up account to use in case of an emergency?

    Now I can perhaps understand where Apple needed to cut corners on its cheapest Mac to keep the price down, but what about a $1,999 Power Mac? Yes, it’s a $29 option there too. Talk about cheap! Is it fair to assume that professional users must have broadband, or, being in an office, use the corporate network to get connected?

    Perhaps this isn’t such a big deal to you, but with millions of dial-up users out there, Apple ought to consider sacrificing a small amount of its profits and restore the built-in modem. Even the $299 Dell Dimension 2400, a bare-bones PC box by any standard, has one.

    Now maybe I’m being a little too picky. I can accept that. But a Mac is supposed to be a better value for the money than a Windows box. It’s supposed to have, standard, the equipment that is optional on the typical Dell or HP. You shouldn’t have to place a custom order to get a component that over 45% of home users in the U.S. and hundreds of millions of potential customers around the world still require.

    Perhaps Apple is just trying to set the trend again, as it did when it ditched the built-in floppy drive and the standard SCSI port some years back. It is a sure thing that, some day, perhaps in the next five years, nearly everyone will have ready access to a cheap broadband connection. You’ll be able to download full-screen, high definition movies in minutes, grab those humongous Mac OS X update files in seconds. The analog modem will no longer be needed.

    But we’re not there yet, and Apple ought to find other ways to save a few pennies in manufacturing costs.

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