Although the humble modem and its allied communications productslummeting. Several vendors are speeding ahead with devices for the mobile market. portfolio have served the channel well over the past decade, the fact that desktop modems can now be sourced off-the-page and on a direct-sell basis for well under £100 has not helped those resellers trying to add value to this section of the market.
While 3Com and a few other modem vendors seem to be adopting a sales-at-all-costs approach to the channel, several vendors are repositioning themselves in the value-added and specialist market. Xircom, in particular, has been quietly moving its brand upmarket, drawing on its success in the corporate sector with its multi-function RealPort range of PCMCIA modems. The company is poised to make a significant push with its next-generation MiniPCI modems which it will promote at the Networks show in Birmingham at the end of the month.
Xircom's MiniPCI devices, which are based on Lucent Technologies' modem technology, are already being supplied on an OEM basis to Hitachi for bundling with its notebook PCs. The MiniPCI form factor is designed to support integrated communications in small form factor products such as notebooks and handheld PCs.
The MiniPCI incorporates the same essential electronics, functionality and software drivers as standard PCI expansion devices but on a small daughter card. The result, Xircom claims, satisfies the needs of manufacturers looking to integrate Lan, modems and other communications capabilities into notebooks, docking stations, printers and other peripheral devices.
Another PCMCIA modem specialist that has been pushing into uncharted waters is Psion Dacom. At the CeBit show in Germany held in March, the Milton Keynes firm took the wraps off a CardBus-compliant version of its Gold series of multi-function PCMCIA comms cards. The Gold Card NetGlobal 56K + 10/100Mb CardBus is billed as offering simultaneous modem and Fast Ethernet operation. In keeping with Psion Dacom's policy on smooth upgrading, it has been developed for GSM and ISDN functions via a separate upgrade kit. Based on 32-bit bus-mastering PCI architecture, Psion Dacom says the CardBus PC Card interface is becoming increasingly common in notebooks.
According to Nabeel Mardi, product marketing manager at Psion Dacom, the CardBus PC Card interface has been designed for high data throughput and low power consumption and as a result the device itself takes on the burden of network tasks, increasing the efficiency of communications and improving notebook battery life. 'This card offers advanced connectivity with simultaneous modem and Ethernet operations. Its modular design offers an upgrade path to both GSM and ISDN,' he says.
Another company known for its PCMCIA specialisation is Portable Add-ons.
It has been adding value to its channel products by pitching bundles at specific segments of the market. One such segment is BT's much-publicised Home and Business Highway low-cost ISDN service, for which the company has been offering an ISDN edition of its FreeSpirit 56K and 33.6K modems over the past few months.
According to Clive Girling, managing director of Portable Add-ons, the FreeSpirit PC Card offers a choice of 56K, 33.6K, GSM or ISDN connectivity.
'As ISDN continues to be a viable option for more users, having this flexibility will prove to be invaluable,' he says.
According to Girling, the FreeSpirit ISDN module provides an active ISDN system for use across all operating systems, including RAS support for Windows NT and dial-up networking (RNA) support for Windows 95.
Portable Add-ons has also signed a distribution agreement with TDK Systems for the entire range of TDK communication products, including the Global Freedom 5660, Global Pro ISDN and soft GSM products such as GlobalPulse.
According to Girling, the distributor decided to pitch in with TDK to allow the firm to act as a one-stop shop for the communications needs of its corporate customers.
After selling its GlobalPulse software-only comms package for GSM mobiles for Windows CE and 95/98 users, TDK has now upgraded the package for use with Windows NT.
The GlobalPulse software was originally developed in 1996 by Grey Cell systems and was billed as the industry's first software-only GSM data application. Grey Cell was subsequently acquired by TDK and the package eventually shipped early last year. The package does away with the need for a PCMCIA data card when connecting a portable PC to a GSM cellular handset for data purposes.
There are several software-only GSM packages on the market. TDK says its latest GlobalPulse release supports all four 32-bit Windows environments.
According to TDK, with corporates standardising on Windows NT for both desktop and notebook computing platforms, the need for effective remote access to corporate networks has never been higher.
According to Keith Marsden, managing director of TDK Systems, a further element favouring the GlobalPulse application is the relatively high power consumption of traditional PCMCIA devices. This can increase the rate of battery life consumption of Windows CE and conventional notebook computers. Marsden says Global-Pulse avoids such a battery drain, as the package has a negligible impact on system resources.
Marsden says the company has used its experience in soft GSM technology to develop the latest version of GlobalPulse. 'The mobile computing system crosses many boundaries and takes many forms,' he claims.
Despite the surge in the number of PCMCIA, MiniPCI and software-only comms systems for all types of business customers, the desktop modem market is far from dead, with several vendors now producing non-serial port modems.
While several vendors dabbled in parallel port-driven modems in the mid-1990s, the technology never really took off. Corporates, meanwhile, tend to prefer not to install internal modems for desk-top PCs, mainly because of compatibility and cost-of-ownership issues. This requirement has spawned the most recent type of modem, the USB device.
Now that USB ports are standard on desktop PCs, having been around for almost 18 months, several vendors are producing USB-driven desktop modems that can take advantage of the 56K modem technology now available on the telephone network.
Multi-Tech is one of the companies involved in the USB market, having just produced one of the industry's first USB modems for laptops. The modem, which shipped in the US last month, is expected in the UK this summer. Known as the MultiMobileUSB, it is designed to preserve the user's investment in legacy applications and infrastructure by including support for Group 3 faxing via Class 1 and Class 2 commands. Other features of the modem include flash memory for data pump and controller software updates; sophisticated online diagnostics; self re-setting lightning protection; and three-number storage for automatic dialling.
Multi-Tech has introduced USB-driven units and its range of Digital Simultaneous Voice and Data (DSVD) modems. The Multi-Modem DSVD has been available to the UK channel since March and supports simultaneous voice and data when connected to another V.70-compliant modem across the PSTN.
According to Dilip Mistry, managing director of Multi-Tech, the company invented DSVD and holds 17 patents on the technology. 'The MultiModem DSVD allows high-speed, reliable performance while operating over standard analogue telephone lines,' Mistry says, adding that the modem is aimed firmly at the corporate market. 'Network managers are now in a position to benefit from data and voice together in products where it would not normally be cost effective.'
Channel veterans could be forgiven for forgetting about the granddaddy of the modem market, Hayes, which saw its parent US operation go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time last year. In fact, the UK and Europe division continued operating and has since been taken over by Zoom Telephonics.
Last month, the joint company announced its UK distribution and reseller plans for the Zoom and Hayes brands. According to Peter Cox, sales and marketing manager at Zoom, after a short period of operational integration, the Zoom and Hayes brands are now fully consolidated in the UK under the Zoom group umbrella. 'It has been a real shot in the arm to have the Hayes business back on a solid financial and commercial footing,' Cox says, adding that the firm has been able to 'hit the boards running with little disruption to business'.
The full line of Hayes products continues to be marketed alongside Zoom's own-brand portfolio, with the two brands maintaining distinct retail and channel identities. According to Cox, the Zoom brand will continue to be represented by Northamber, Ideal Hardware and Open Computing, while Hayes will be marketed through CHS Electronics, Computer 2000, Logitek, DMST and Northamber.
While dealers are busy selling modems of all types to all segments, there is an important area of value add that many are missing out on - discount telephony services.
One company that has just rejigged its range of channel options for dealers is LCR Telecom, where LCR stands for least cost routing.
The Fulham firm is one of a generation of companies known as switchless vendors. The company buys in telephone time from many carriers and then sells the service on to its business customers at the lowest possible price. Customers either elect to install a smart box or reprogram their PABX to route calls across the LCR network.
According to Gideon Shmuel, managing director of LCR, tapping the lucrative market for least cost routing technology will become significantly easier for UK dealers following the launch of the company's threefold partnership programme. The scheme, which was showcased last month at Dealer Expo '99, has been designed to fit the needs of individual dealers - from those that want to rebrand the LCR service to those that simply want to use the LCR identity.
According to Shmuel, the company's dealer programme comprises three main options: channel partner, branded partner and virtual reseller partner. Channel partners effectively assume the LCR identity, with the partner being given full sales and marketing training.
LCR takes responsibility for billing, credit control and installations.
In return, the firm provides dealers with 24-hour helpdesk support and customer care. Partners also receive an ongoing share of revenue and incentives.
Branded LCR partners, meanwhile, receive training and support on request, and branded customer care with access to billing and credit control. Profit is based on revenue share, but the branded partner is responsible for its installations. The branded partner also gets flexible account management.
Last but not least is the virtual reseller partner. Virtual partners control their own revenue by wholesale purchase of minutes, receiving fully-branded billing partitions, but are responsible for its installations.
According to Shmuel, following sales of the company's original channel initiative, he is looking to develop partnerships with a range of dealers in the voice and data telecoms market. 'It's important to offer dealers different levels of support and I believe our three options are flexible enough to suit each dealer's individual requirements,' he explains. 'The opportunities are out there in the modem and mobile communications market - it's just a case of identifying them.'
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