Tangling With PC Networks

FOR two years my original computer - an IBM XT - sat in the corner of my office. I used it when my faster 386-class machine crashed. Mostly, though, the XT just sat there.

Then, a few months ago, Artisoft Inc. - one of the industry's hottest networking companies - sent me a starter kit. I shuddered, initially, but the XT is back in use.

Anyone who knows anything about local area networks - or LANs - knows they're complicated. There are cables to run and adapter cards to install. A quick scan of the Artisoft software manuals revealed strange commands like NBSETUP and LANPUP?

LANs make a lot of sense for business. Link up a company's desktop computers and, suddenly, employees can share files. Don't buy printers for every personal computer; just share a few on the network. LANs are much less expensive to own and run than mainframe computers. No wonder networking companies are doing a booming business in a computer slump. Business Week just named Artisoft its No. 1 "hot growth" company.

But a network for my home/office? Why get tangled up building a network for one? To my surprise, I had the system up and running in less than 40 minutes. Artisoft's software, called LANtastic, is simple to use. It was fun, almost magical, to sit at my 386 machine and run all-but-forgotten programs on the XT. I now had an extra hard disk to store my data. The network for one began to make sense.

I got more ambitious. If I could use the XT's hard disk, why not ease the load on my own crammed machine and use the XT to run the printer? How about a modem? It was the modem fiasco that brought me back to reality.

Modems, I learned, need special software to run on LANtastic. The company kindly sent me ArtiCom. I spent weeks trying to get it to work. Ken, an Artisoft technician, managed to get ArtiCom to dial the modem, but not with my communications package and not in my Windows operating environment. To solve the problem, he wanted a conference call with the company that makes my communications software. A conference call? A communal chat with technical support people from two companies? This was getting complica ted. I thanked Ken and hung up.

Weeks went by. I upgraded my communications software. No success. I called another technical person at Artisoft, who finally pinpointed the problem. It turns out that the company's ArtiCom software doesn't work with its LANtastic for Windows software. Not yet, anyway. I took the modem out of the XT.

In 10 years, I think, this first crack at home networking will seem silly and wise. Silly, because it makes no sense to get a $699 LANtastic Starter Kit for an extra 20 megabytes of hard-disk space. Wise, because home networking is part of the future.

As prices fall and networks become easy to use, homes will link up their existing computers. The old XT won't run the latest graphics software, but it will still turn out a good letter. Of more interest, networks will hook up different appliances.

For four decades, information flowed into the home in separate boxes: a TV set, a telephone, newspapers, library books. Some people predict that a super-machine will replace the boxes. I think a home network will connect them up. Information, whatever its original form, will flow through our network to be stored, searched, and recombined. It will change the way we do things and, perhaps, what we do.

Want to delve into the election campaign? The network will bring together last night's newscast, an encyclopedia article on United States elections, your US representative's voting record, and the newspaper's editorial. Fixing a leaky faucet? The network could call up a fix-it book and the local hardware store.

Networking companies aren't there yet. Artisoft, like everyone else, is still struggling to make different computers work together. But the signs are there. Already, companies sell packages to turn desktop computers into voice-mail centers. Other products allow users to watch TV on their computers.

All this presages a better informed society. For that promise, I won't mind getting tangled up in a few network cables.

Laurent Belsie can be reached on CompuServe (70541,3654) and Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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