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Tech Industry

AltoCom moves into modems

The General Magic spinoff develops a software-based modem technology for set-top boxes, handheld devices, and fax machines.

    AltoCom, a spinoff from General Magic, is making moves into the modem market with a software-based modem technology for set-top boxes, handheld devices, and fax machines. Its product line is called SoftModem.

    Software-based modems use the computer's main microprocessor for computing power rather than a set of special modem chips or a separate DSP (digital signal processor). Accordingly, software modems are expected to be cheaper than standard modems because less hardware is needed.

    PCTel and SmartLink also have software-based modems, and Motorola is developing the technology as well. So far, these companies have mainly targeted software modems at the market for desktop computers with Intel processors.

    AltoCom's strategy for SoftModem is to focus on the markets dominated by RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processors, including Windows CE-based handheld computers and set-top boxes. The technology is already shipping in Philips' Velo1 handheld.

    The company also licensed the technology to Advanced RISC Machines, which makes RISC processors. In set-top boxes, use of software modem technology is important because the technology can be easily upgraded without user intervention as faster communications protocols are developed, such as 56-kbps technology. And Ricoh will use the technology in fax machines to enable upgrades to faster fax communication protocols that are being adopted in Japan soon.

    AltoCom officials would not comment on specific future licensees of the SoftModem technology, although they said they hope to announce additional companies later this summer or early fall.

    "The long-heralded arrival of software displacing hardware functions is finally happening. People have been talking about this for a long time, but now the lower cost of very fast chips and the cost of developing software are such that economically, software is going to be doing more and more [functions]," says Tom Hershenson, a spokesperson for the company.