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  • The Mac Hardware Report: An Epitaph for the Modem

    October 29th, 2005

    While everyone looks to the iPod as Apple’s biggest innovation ever, it’s the small things that count. When the iMac appeared in 1998, the biggest criticism focused on what it lacked, and that was the floppy drive and SCSI port. Cynics might suggest it was a cost-cutting move at the time, but Apple’s decision to embrace a PC peripheral port, USB, began a trend that eventually encompassed the entire computer industry.

    Of course it took a while for Apple to deliver a suitable replacement for floppies, one with more resiliency and more capacity, and that was a CD burner. In fact, Apple was late to the party with the standard CD burner. You can, by the way, still by an external floppy drive for your Mac if you have a spare $30. But Apple was the first computer maker to tell you that it was time to move on to something better.

    SCSI? Well, it’s still available for professional users, but lots of them have since moved on to FireWire.

    But once an internal modem became standard issue on all Macs, you expected that it would last for a good look time. Yes, it’s still there on an Apple laptop, but it’s now an optional, external extra on desktop Macs, with the lone exception of the cheapest Mac mini. The departure of the modem, without fanfare or even an explanation, may seem a little premature, of course. I caught a survey from Pew Internet Project that, as of May of this year, some 66 million Americans, or 53% of those who go online from their homes, have broadband connections.

    The survey, however, doesn’t provide a breakdown of Mac versus PC users, and it would be interesting to see whether there’s much of a difference. Of course, a much larger number of people have broadband at the office, but when you’re talking about consumer-oriented products, such as the iMac, I think strictly home, even though it’s an excellent work computer.

    The question, then, is why Apple would remove a feature required by, say, 47% of its customers in the U.S. alone? To save a few dollars in production? Yes, the external USB-based modem will set you back $49, but it costs a lot less when reduced to a tiny circuit board for internal use. Clearly Apple wants you to switch to broadband, but despite the will, there isn’t always a way, and where there’s a way it may be just too expensive a luxury.

    Sure, broadband Internet is terrific, and in some areas of the country, you can get it for less than dial-up set you back just a few years ago if you pay attention to the special offers, particularly for entry-level DSL. And even that is a real plus, particularly when you have to retrieve 100MB in updates from Apple, a circumstance that arrives all too often. Imagine doing that on a dial-up, and it can be an uncertain, irritating experience. You may just give up on critical updates because you can’t tie up your phone line for that long, and there’s no dealer within a reasonable distance to make a copy for you.

    Unfortunately, there are still areas around the U.S. where broadband is not available at an affordable price, or at all. Yes, there is a satellite alternative, from DIRECWAY, provided by the same folks who bring you DirecTV. But it’s $59.99 per month, plus a $599.98 fee for installation and equipment. For $99.99 a month, plus $99.99 up front, you can pay for the equipment over 15 months, by the way. Worse, download speeds range from 500K to 700K, and upload speeds from 70K to 128K. That’s no better than many of those cheap DSL plans. There’s also the issue of poor latency, because of the time it takes your request to reach the satellite and return back to earth. But if you have no alternative and live in a location where satellite TV is available, it is an imperfect solution.

    Other possible broadband alternatives include land-based wireless or even your power lines, though the technology for the latter is still highly experimental. So in time your location and even your budget should not prevent you from experiencing the Internet on the fast lane. Unless you must send and receive faxes on your Mac, you can regard the modem as, potentially at least, a dying breed.

    At the same time, I think Apple is being just a little premature in dispensing with standard modems. Far too many of you need them. It may be because broadband is too expensive or not readily available. It may be that you are content with or only able to afford $10 for a budget dial-up service. You see, aside from downloading software updates and videos from Apple, there are millions of Mac users out there who do not care a whit for broadband. Indeed, you are perfectly happy going online to check your email and perhaps consult the news, stock prices, or your bank statement.

    In fact, and it may come as a surprise to some of you, but those modest tasks can be accomplished quite efficiently via a modem. It may take longer to get from here to there, but if you are a little patient, you’ll get the information you need.

    Those huge Apple updates? Well, that’s another matter entirely.



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