PC-Card Modem Doesn't Cut It Yet For the Rest of Us

I needed a modem, fast. And since I was traveling with a notebook computer, it seemed like a good idea to pick up the smallest kind available: a modem the size of a credit card.

In theory, these are nifty devices. Called PCMCIA cards, they slide into special slots on most new notebook computers. Just a little thicker than a 3.5-inch floppy disk, they can mimic just about any computer peripheral. Want to hook into a network? Plug in a PCMCIA network adapter. A second hard drive? There's a PCMCIA card that can fit the bill. PCMCIA promises to turn even the puniest mobile computing device into a virtual desktop powerhouse.

Unfortunately, PCMCIA cards are as ungainly as their acronym. Not every card works in every computer. The group that oversees the technology (the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) moved this year to simplify the name. We're supposed to call them PC Cards now. But simplifying the technology? Hah!

I had read about compatibility problems. So before buying the PC Card modem -- a Hayes Optima -- I checked the box. It didn't list my notebook computer but urged customers to call for a complete list of compatible machines.

''There really isn't a list,'' Hayes's technical support told me. Instead, he read me the seven chip-sets that the modem supports. Don't worry, he said, 90 percent of notebook computers use one of those chip-sets.

Now, it is a cardinal rule of this column that if you have to find out something as picayune as a chip-set, the item is definitely not a computer peripheral ''for the rest of us.'' Still, I needed a modem. So I copied down the names and called my notebook company. The technical-support specialist didn't know which PC Card chip-set the computer used. ''Read them to me,'' he said. When I reached the Vadem VG365/465/468, he said: ''I think that's it.''

I was beginning to have a bad feeling about this. The specialist told me not to worry. I could always tell if a PC Card would work by editing a special startup file (another ''Computers for the Rest of Us'' no-no) and inserting the device. If the computer made a two-note chime, the card would work.

So there I was at the checkout counter of a discount computer store, ripping open the Hayes box, starting up my notebook computer, and waiting for a special chime. It did chime, so I bought it. But for the rest of my trip, I couldn't get the thing to work. Back home, a Hayes technical support specialist finally got me up and running. The only problem is that the way the software is set up, I can't use anything else (like a network adapter, for example) besides the Hayes modem in the PC Card slots.

My experience with the technology is worse than most. People buy PC Cards and get them to work right away. Some observers, such as Richard Frazita of Link Resources Corporation, think compatibility problems will disappear as companies rally around a new US-Japan standard.

Carl Perkins, president of PC Card manufacturer New Media Corporation in Irvine, Calif., is less optimistic. ''It's going to be crafty companies dealing with software that make these products handy,'' he says. His own company guarantees its PC Cards will work anywhere, a promise I dearly hope is true.

Two weeks ago, dozens of PC Card companies gathered in a Burlingame, Calif., hotel. For three days, their engineers wandered from suite to suite, plugging their PC Cards into various machines and working out any problems. The event was such a success that more are planned.

Maybe the industry is figuring out that PC Cards can't deliver on their potential until they work easily for the rest of us.

* Meanwhile, use a conventional modem to e-mail me via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com), CompuServe (70541,3654), or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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