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Modem gets plug-and-play technology

3Com's new U.S. Robotics modem may be a sign that USB is accelerating its sluggish march toward widespread use.

3Com is getting on the bus.

The company announced its U.S. Robotics 56K Voice Faxmodem, its first modem equipped with a plug-and-play connection technology called Universal Serial Bus (USB).

USB is a one-size-fits-all connection, expected to eventually replace both parallel and serial port connections--typically found on the rear panel of a PC--and increase data transfer speed to 12 megabits per second (mbps).

For the last ten years or so, all PCs have had relatively slow serial and parallel connections, or "ports." The serial port is used, for example, to connect external modems to the PC, while the parallel port is typically used for devices such as printers.

USB technology has the advantage of being "plug-and-play," eliminating the need for cards, reconfiguration, and rebooting when connecting a device such as a printer or scanner. Configuring hardware has always plagued PC users. USB, if implemented properly, can mitigate these problems.

3Com's announcement may be a sign that USB is accelerating its sluggish march toward widespread use. Many new desktop PCs and notebooks already ship with a USB port, especially higher-end machines. But thus far the peripherals they connect with, such as modems, have been lagging behind.

"It's significant because it's a known brand and it's a peripheral that so many people need," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "So far we've seen USB primarily on more esoteric peripherals like digital cameras. This is more mainstream."

Kay applauded 3Com's early entry into the USB-equipped modem market and said other companies were sure to follow. "All vendors are hovering around the same thing, and this should herald the rest of them coming out with a product," he said. "It's the industry-wide intention to cut over to USB."

Other companies, including an Alcatel and Singapore-based Aztech Systems are planning USB-equipped modems as well.

Though USB can be supported on Windows 95, native support for USB will be written into Microsoft's Windows 98. 3Com has also retained the serial interface connection on its new modem in case users want to use this older technology also.

3Com's new modem will be upgradeable to the new 56-kbps standard being hammered out by the International Telecommunications Union. The contentious standard is expected to be finalized in the first half of the coming year. Without a standard, modems using 3Com's x2 technology currently do not interoperate with modems based on Rockwell and Lucent's K56flex technology.

The modem comes with what 3Com describes as its highest quality speakerphone technology, which allows users to accept a phone call while the PC is turned off. The modem comes bundled with WinFax Pro communications software and is expected to be available next month for an estimated street price of $249.