What's in the Name Of the New PC Game

IT'S a law of computing that the better the technology, the longer the acronym. EISA is better than ISA. SVGA outshines VGA. SCSI runs rings around MFM. So, when the computer industry names something PCMCIA, you know it's got to be good.

The gobbledygook stands for Personal Computer Memory Card Interface Association. Imagine the potential of a technology that turns computer components into something the size of a credit card. It might be a modem or a link to a local-area network. One product helps the computer plot its geographical position. PCMCIA is a new way to customize computers.

PCMCIA slots are already appearing this year in notebook computers. The new class of personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as Apple's Newton and Casio's Zoomer, also incorporate the technology.

The plug-and-play potential of PCMCIA cards goes beyond mobile computing. Siemens and IBM have started putting the technology on desktop units. In June, IBM began selling the PS/2 E, a desktop computer with four PCMCIA slots. The machine's creator, IBM's Jim Davis, sees no reason why future desktop machines won't incorporate the technology to make personal computing much easier.

Changing the peripherals on today's PCs is not easy. You have to take off the lid, unscrew one or more computer boards from the back of the machine, pull them out, push in new cards, and screw the mess back together again. That's the ideal. If there's a conflict with IRQs or some other jargon-laced problems, the situation really gets messy.

PCMCIA eliminates a lot of that. Hooking up to a network? Plug in a local-area network card just the way you pop in a floppy. Need more memory? Plug in a memory card. No need to buy a modem for your desktop and another for the notebook. A PCMCIA modem would handle both. When you switch to a new machine, insert the PCMCIA hard drive that holds all your data.

"It's ready to take off," says Portia Isaacson, a consultant and president of Dream IT in Colorado Springs, Colo. This year, fewer than 500,000 mobile computers and PDAs will incorporate PCMCIA slots. By 1996, 9 million mobile systems will have them.

But don't go rushing out to the computer store just yet. Another law of computing is that the newer the technology, the less likely it is to work. PCMCIA is still maturing. Early users are finding that PCMCIA cards don't necessarily work in all machines. Maybe a driver (a crucial part of software) is missing. Or the cards aren't entirely compatible.

That's because, in the rush to make the technology universal, the association wrote a standard applicable to everything from high-performance computers to telephones and cameras. These industries have different needs. And, because the association does not test the systems for compatibility, lots of variants have crept into PCMCIA implementations.

Ms. Isaacson thinks these compatibility issues will be taken care of in six months. David Lawrence, PCMCIA expert and president of Ventura Micro in Oxnard, Calif., sees a longer period of evolution. PCMCIA technology will converge on de facto standards, he says, much as the computer industry converged around IBM's PC standard in the early 1980s.

PCMCIA technology still can't compete with some of the more powerful desktop architectures, such as EISA and IBM's Micro Channel. The biggest IBM PCMCIA hard drive carries only 15 megabytes of data. But help is on the way. Maxtor, a hard-drive maker, is working on a 105-megabyte card. Other companies are working on combination cards.

Mr. Davis has no doubts where all this is leading. "I believe that all the manufacturers in '94 will have a combination of PCMCIA slots and internal slots," he says. Eventually, configuring a desktop computer will be a matter of plugging in those little cards.

Of course, there's still the nagging problem of the name. PC Cards? MasterComp? One computer wag suggested keeping the acronym but making it stand for "People Can't Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms." I like that.

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