Daily Tedium

Going Soft

Remembering that time the computer industry bought into soft modems, which shoved the work of managing a dial-up modem onto overworked CPUs.

By Ernie Smith

Dial-up modems were underpowered enough back in the days of AOL, but at the height of their popularity, manufacturers figured out a way to make them even worse.

During the late ‘90s, a spate of companies, including big name modem manufacturers like U.S. Robotics, Motorola, and PCtel, had the idea to replace hardware-based modems, which generally required a separate digital signal processor to manage the dial-up connection, with software-based equivalents, which took this task and put it on top of the CPU already being used.

The pitch to consumers went like this: You won’t have to buy a faster modem, because you can simply upgrade your drivers to better specs. Plus, by separating hardware from software, the modems can conceivably do more things.

“With the new Winmodem™ from U.S. Robotics, you actually harness the power of your Windows operating system to fax, check E-mail, and search the net faster and more efficiently than with any other modem,” a PC Magazine ad from 1996, exemplifying the strategy, claimed. “Not to mention, of course, more affordably.”

And they sold it to manufacturers by pointing out the cost savings over traditional hardware modems—which meant these things were everywhere in the latter half of the ‘90s.

The problem is, that putting the job of managing the modem into Windows’ hands means that it’s competing with every other task that the CPU has to deal with. That’s not so hard with today’s machines, but PCs during the second Clinton administration were just barely fast enough to handle the extra workload of secondary hardware like modems, and the cost benefits that came by replacing hardware-based modems with software equivalents was modest at best.

Really, this strategy mainly benefited manufacturers like Packard Bell and eMachines, which were looking to cut every possible corner.

This approach didn’t stick with us, by the way; DSL lines tended to use software-based modems, but as we went wireless and switched to cable modems and FiOS, the modems went back out of our computers. By the time computers were fast enough to handle soft modems without hacking up a lung, they were unnecessary.

On the other hand, such meshing together of tasks (also common with sound cards) would become a defining feature of the smartphones we use all over the place. Case in point: Andy Rubin, a onetime Apple engineer who pioneered one of the earliest software-based modems (and later worked for a firm, General Magic, that developed soft modems), would go on to create the technology behind Android.

(Photo by Joe Lipson/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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