Connecting to the Internet Faster, Cheaper, and Easier

While it is common consensus that the majority of Internet access for the next few years will consist mainly of dial-up access (using a standard modem and telephone line to dial into a server), new technologies as yet to take off including ADSL and cable modems loom on the horizon. And, new Internet access products are being developed at a rapid pace, designed to give as many people as possible Internet access -- without the expense and complication of a full-blown multimedia PC. 

What d'es this mean for education? While the education environment d'es not always parallel consumer trends, the implications are clear. For the next few years, at least, educators may well be accessing the Internet through analog or digital modems, using traditional desktop computers, school networks, or perhaps some of the new Internet "appliances." 
  

Modems Get a Boost

There have been some interesting developments in modem technology recently that bode well for educators tired of long, seemingly endless download times. Keep putting off downloading that hot, new plug in or applet because of the two-hour online wait? Well, fret no more, because soon your multimedia authoring class may have new features to play with, courtesy of US Robotics' new x2 technology

Basically, what this technology d'es is give x2 modem users the ability to download data at roughly 56Kbps -- equivalent to many ISDN connections. What's required is just a modem with x2 capabilities and an ISP that supports x2. At press time, over 300 ISPs (Internet Service Providers) worldwide support x2, so initial concerns of buying a technology that won't be supported are unfounded. To see if a specific ISP supports x2, visit http://x2.usr.com/leaders/index.html. 

Why d'es x2 only let one download at 56Kbps, and not upload? Among other, more technical reasons that we don't have space to cover is the simple fact that most Internet and remote access consists of graphics-based, high-bandwidth information being sent to users. User requests, such as http commands, require less bandwidth and can be quickly sent to the server at conventional speeds of 28.8 or 33.6 Kbps. 

All Sportster 33.6 desktop modems bought since August 15, 1996, are upgradeable to x2. Additionally, Total Control remote access server and modem pool products are flash ROM upgradeable, as are all Courier modems. US Robotics' Megahertz PC cards will also feature x2. 

A competing technology, offered by Rockwell, allows users to do basically the same as x2, but using Rockwell-produced equipment. While definitely a viable alternative, one must look at industry and ISP support when choosing a modem with these capabilities. 

Since the majority of industry shipments for most of 1997 are expected to be 33.6 Kbps modems, manufacturers are coming out with some pretty enticing packages. Zoom Telephonics, for instance, antes up with ComStar SVD, a V.34 Faxmodem that incorporates a speakerphone, digital answering machine, voice mail, Rockwell's AudioSpan simultaneous voice and data technology, and also supports the ITU H.324 videophone standard. Both internal and external models are available, and both come with a high-quality external microphone and speaker. ComStar SVD is available for Windows. 

Zoom also offers the Zoom/MultiLine faxmodem, suited for modem pools, faxservers, voice mail systems, and remote access servers requiring four to 32 ports. It holds up to eight hot-swappable modules, each module a complete Rockwell-based serial V.34 faxmodem or V.32bis voice/faxmodem. ZoomGuard Plus lightning and surge protection ensures continuous operation, and Flash ROM makes firmware upgrades a snap. System administrators can lock in functions and settings for each module, and other advanced calling features such as Caller ID and Distinctive Ring give the Zoom/MultiLine extra convenience. 

ISDN Is a Realistic Option

ISDN modems, although traditionally more expensive than their analog counterparts, are beginning to come down in price. More importantly, setup and operation are becoming much more user-friendly. The 3ComImpact IQ external ISDN modem is designed for both PC and Macintosh systems, and can deliver 230 Kbps throughput at peak performance by combining data compression with 128 Kbps data sessions and a high-speed serial interface. Very user friendly, the SPID Wizard automatically sets up ISDN line parameters, previously a big hassle. It comes with a suite of Internet software and has two analog ports, letting one make or receive phone calls while surfing the Web. 

Diamond Multimedia's Supra NetCommander ISDN modem's unique Flex Channel Multilink-PPP control will automatically add or drop bandwidth in Windows 95, minimizing cost for institutions. It supports voice/data on both B-channels, rings up to three telephones, and retails for under $250. 

Motorola's BitSURFR Pro is one of the only ISDN ISA cards with two POTS ports. By using an ISA slot in the computer, this card eliminates serial port limitations (which can slow communications down to 115Kbps) to provide true 128Kbps. It also includes a VCOMM port driver for Windows 95 and a WinISDN driver for Windows 3.1x to remove com port bottlenecks. A built-in true ring generator ensures that analog devices connected to the modem will ring automatically as though they were plugged into a wall jack. 

Finally, with the Zoom/Duo, educators can have both an ISDN modem, with effective data rates up to 460,800 bps using built-in compression, and an integrated V.34 faxmodem that works on both ISDN and POTS lines. Using this solution, users can not only call an ISDN line, but also an analog modem, fax machine or faxmodem using an ISDN or POTS line. 
  

Access Net via Cellular

Perhaps more interesting than the advances seen in modem technology are the products, or clients, used to access the Internet. Many of these Internet "appliances," if you will, defy easy placement into traditional computing categories. For example, Mitsubishi's MobileAccess cellular phone has all the features of a top-of-the-line cellular voice phone, with the added capabilities that many would imagine only in a Dick Tracy comic strip. Users can connect to PCs via the V.32 bis AMPS radio fax/data modem, accessing or sending information. They can also use the 19.2 Kbps CDPD radio modem for two-way paging, e-mail, fax and Internet/Intranet access. 

All this on a cellular phone? Yes, made possible in part by Unwired Planet's UPLink platform. UPLink is technology that can be embedded into devices that have memory constraints, such as cellular phones and electronic pagers. The UPLink package includes the UPLink Browser, which allows one to easily access information stored on Web servers and Intranets, using a cellular phone. The MobileAccess has a 12-character, four-row display that lets one "browse," or scroll, through screens of information that is HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language) enabled. Look for other handheld devices to incorporate this fascinating technology.

Another unique product that promises to give Internet access and, in particular, e-mail capabilities to educators with only a phone line is Uniden's unique AXIS telephone Internet appliance. Price around $300 to $400, AXIS combines a full-featured 900 MHz cordless telephone, keyboard and display screen in one user-friendly, low-cost and no maintenance device. 

While one can send and receive e-mail manually, perhaps the most convenient feature is the automatic e-mail retrieval system. No more booting up the computer and waiting 10 minutes or so to get online. AXIS checks for and retrieves messages at regular intervals throughout the day, automatically alerting one with a blinking indicator, much like an answering machine, that messages have been retrieved. Reading one's e-mail is as simple as pressing a button.


This device, and others like it, will do much to ensure that even computer-illiterate or technophobic individuals can take advantage of the Internet. AXIS also features Caller ID, as well as an electronic address book, notepad and calendar. Eventually, one will even be able to browse the Web and retrieve information from the Internet using AXIS.
  
Even videogame giant Sega is getting in on the act. Sega's new Net Link device plugs into its Saturn videogame console, giving push-button Internet access for just under $400. It comes with a 28.8 Kbps modem and a custom-designed browser that is specifically designed for television displays. With this system, classrooms only need a television and phone line to browse the Web, send and receive e-mail, participate in electronic pen pal programs and more. Sega is committed to making the Net Link a viable alternative for education, having committed to distributing 1,100 units to schools nationwide in 1997 through Projectneat.

Another television-based Internet solution, Sony's new Internet Terminal hooks up to any TV and provides access to the WebTV Network. A Universal Remote Commander controls both the TV and Internet Terminal, providing access to the unit's five available e-mail addresses. It has technology that allows blocking of inappropriate content, and indicates when a message is waiting. 

Windows, E-mail and More in Your Palm

And then there are the new handheld PCs (HPCs). Heralded by many as the Next Big Thing, these devices give one a computing experience close to a desktop's, while still fitting in the palm of one's hand. Sharp's Zaurus ZR-3500X includes an integrated 14.4/9.6 Kbps Data/Fax modem that, coupled with Z-Em@il software, lets one send and receive e-mail with attachments. Built-in word processing and spreadsheet applications are compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel file formats, and the new ZR-AP2C software allows for Drag and Drop file exchange right onto the Windows 95 desktop. 

The unit's built-in infrared port permits wireless data exchanges with infrared-capable PCs, printers and other Zaurus models and boasts one-touch PC-Link and e-mail capabilities. The Zaurus ZR-3500X features a 320 x 240 pixel touch screen LCD, Backlit illuminated display, a 15-pin serial port for connecting the bundled PC link cable, and runs continuously up to 100 hours on two AA batteries. 

Hewlett Packard's OmniGo 700LX combines their 200LX palmtop PC and Nokia cellular phone technology to let users send or receive e-mail wirelessly using a Nokia cellular phone. One can run DOS-based applications via plug-in cards or by downloading from a PC, and output to printers with an infrared port. 

The release of Microsoft's Windows CE, an open, scaleable operating system platform designed for mobile computing devices, will surely broaden the appeal of these mini-computers. Windows CE has TCP/IP and PPP protocols built-in, as well as Windows-based APIs, enabling HPCs to access the Internet and remote servers. PC Card support allows users to take advantage of the many existing PCMCIA wired and wireless modems, and the universal inbox e-mail application supports both SMTP and POP3 protocols. 

Casio is one of the first to market with a HPC that takes advantage of Windows CE. The Cassiopeia weighs less than a pound and features a 480 x 240 pixel LCD with pen touch-sensitive screen, keyboard and standard PC card expansion slot. The unit's CPU, based on Hitachi's SuperH RISC engine, was optimized for Windows CE through joint development with Casio and Hitachi. 

Using Windows CE means interoperability with Windows desktops. To that end, Cassiopeia comes pre-installed with a number of applications including Information Manager (synchronized with Microsoft Schedule+ for Windows 95), Microsoft Pocket Word, Microsoft Pocket Excel and Microsoft Pocket Internet Explorer, for e-mail and Internet functions. Other applications include QV Camera Connection software, for importing digital camera images, and bFAX, for fax transmission of text and bitmap files. 

MobilePro, NEC's Windows CE-based HPC, uses NEC's VR4101 MIPS RISC CPU. It offers instantaneous synchronization with desktops or laptops via a MobilePro Cradle. MobilePro HPCs come in two different configurations, one with 2MB RAM and a Direct Connection serial cable and the other with 4MB RAM and the MobilePro Cradle. 

Compaq's offering in the new HPC class is their Compaq PC Companion. The C120+ model gets 2MB RAM (expandable to 4MB), a standard 14.4 Kbps LP PC Card modem, AC adapter and more. All models have 4 MB ROM, Windows CE, serial cable, and e-mail and Internet connectivity options. 

For those interested in a product designed specifically with education in mind, Apple's new eMate 300 (see T.H.E. Journal, December, 1996, p. 80) may fit the bill. Based on the Newton platform, the eMate 300 gives students a "personal" computer that fits in their backpack, is rugged enough to take on outdoor assignments, and comes with a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program and graphing calculator. With an optional modem card, one can access the Internet and use e-mail. 
  

LANs, WANs -- The NC D'es 'Em All

An interesting concept, one that has been bandied about for a few years now, is the network computer (NC). To simplify the concept, think of it as a throwback to the mainframe/terminal or, more recently, server/client days. Instead of having a desktop PC with its obligatory hard disk drive (or other storage device such as Iomega's Zip and Jaz drives) where users store applications and call them into memory when using them, a NC is simply an advanced terminal, where users "log on" to a network. This network may be an institution's LAN, WAN or even the Internet. When they want to use an application, say a word processor, instead of pulling it off of a PC's hard disk drive, a signal is sent to a server on the network where all applications, user profiles and other information is stored. 

There are many advantages to this approach. Because there is no disk drive, users cannot introduce a harmful virus onto the network. NCs, because of their inherent simplicity, are virtually maintenance free -- no moving parts such as disk drives to break. No more annoying RAM upgrades, since servers do much of the work. No more downtime due to a desktop's sudden unwillingness to cooperate, exasperating hardware conflicts or software glitches. And to top all of this, NC prices are generally much lower than comparable-performance desktop units. 

Wyse, a pioneer in NCs, has released their latest, called the Winterm 4000. Thanks to its 200 MHz Strong Arm 110 CPU, it boasts lightening-quick speed and Java applet execution. It also provides easy access to e-mail and other Internet and Intranet programs, including HTML-based Web browsers, UNIX and mainframe data and leading productivity packages like Microsoft Office 97 and Office for Java from Corel. 

Winterm units come in a variety of configurations, from modular, book-size versions for versatile placement and easy connection to any VESA-standard monitor, to all-in-one units integrating a built-in flat-panel, active-matrix display. Meeting the desire for a Java-based NC and the need to provide access to Windows-based applications, plus UNIX servers and mainframes, the Winterm 4000 NC is well-suited to network-centric computing in an educational environment. 

Finally, firms such as First Internet Franchise Corp. are already leveraging the NC's unique adaptability to the education arena, offering plans that give institutions NCs and their benefits, while c'existing peacefully with existing legacy PCs such as Macs and IBM compatibles.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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