January 31, 1996

Cable Modems Draw Glances at High-Tech Beauty Pageant


INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- If there is any doubt that the Internet has fundamentally transformed the personal computer industry, it can be dispelled quickly by looking at the new products in a high-technology beauty pageant here. And cable modems seem to be drawing attentive glances.

Hardware and software executives at the Demo 96 conference, which continues through Wednesday, are demonstrating Internet development and publishing tools; Internet delivered by radio and infrared signals; Internet shopping and games; pocket-size Internet terminals; three-dimensional Internet displays and computers that exist only to connect to the Internet.

But these are relatively crude applications, many of the executives concede, because they are constrained by the lack of high-speed data connections of the sort being tested in cable modem trials at various places around the country.

"The real question," said Eric E. Schmidt, chief technical officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., "is what new applications will be available in the industry a year from now that we have not foreseen, the kind that will drive new kinds of consumer behavior. And the obvious new thing happening now is cable modems."

Cable modems connect a computer to the thick coaxial cables used to bring television signals into millions of homes. In theory, the cables can allow two-way data traffic at hundreds of times the speed of standard telephone wires.

This greater bandwidth, as the data capacity is called, makes it more practical to use video mail and other advanced communications applications over the Internet.

Prototypes of such applications were abundant here. The Intel Corp., for example, demonstrated an Internet version of the video phone, which a woman posing as a mother used to arrange a date for her 30-something son.

"There's always a great need for speed, and anything that increases the bandwidth, especially to the home, is going to have a great impact on the market," said Jonathan N. Zakin, executive vice president of the U.S. Robotics Corp. of Skokie, Ill., one of several companies racing to develop cable modems. Others include Zenith Data Systems, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Intel.

But Zakin and other executives here said that the indications from current cable modem trials were that full realization of the promise of high-speed communications was several years away -- if then.

Companies here are taking different approaches to prepare for the rise of high-speed data access. Take Sun Microsystems Inc., which is displaying a shoebox-sized computer designed expressly for Internet access. Sun has built 300 of the computers, which are based on Sun's Java software, but has not decided whether to begin wider production, Schmidt said.

Others, like Steven McGeady, vice president and general manager of Intel's Internet technology laboratory in Hillsboro, Ore., think computers will need to get bigger and more complex, rather than smaller, to handle the increased data flow over high-capacity networks including the telephone companies' integrated services digital network.

"You can get the Internet over plain old telephone service; I.S.D.N.; in many locations by cable; by direct-broadcast satellite and over broadcast TV," McGeady said. "There is data flowing into your homes from all these different sources, and the personal computer is the one device that can adapt to all of those different kinds of transport methods and sort it all out."

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