1988 vs. 2008: A Tech Retrospective

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Modems

The Hayes V-Series SmartModem 2400.
1988: Hayes V-Series SmartModem 2400

  • Price: $399 ($699 adjusted for inflation)
  • Speed: 2400 baud
  • Interface: serial
  • Standard supported: v.22bis

The Motorola SurfBoard S5101 Cable Modem.
2008: Motorola SurfBoard S5101 Cable Modem

  • Price: $60
  • Speed: 38 mbps down/30 mbps up
  • Interface: ethernet and USB
  • Standards supported: DOCSIS 1.1 and 2.0

In 1988, one of the first questions you'd ask a new computing friend was, "How fast is your modem?"

If the person said 300 baud, you'd nod sympathetically; 1200 or 2400 baud got them a friendly smile; and 4800 or 9600 turned you green with envy.

By 1988, the price of the industry-standard 2400-baud Hayes V-Series SmartModem had plummeted from its original $1000 to $400, and clones could be found for $100--a pittance compared to the $6 to $12 per hour you had to pay for online fees.

You'd also have to invest $50 in terminal software like Smartcom, which sent dialing commands to the modem.

Today, few broadband users even know the brand of their modem, much less its model number or speed. You might be able to say whether you have 6- or 12-mbps service, but the modem itself has been reduced to a fungible commodity, often provided for free by your ISP.

The Motorola SurfBoard is a common carrier-supplied cable modem that supports up to 38 mbps, though most users won't achieve that speed due to various limitations in the service they pay for.

The next frontier for modems and connection speeds will likely involve a new pipe to your house, such as fiber-optic or high-speed wireless service. Verizon is building FIOS as fast as it can, and consumers are snapping it up. Wireless will be the answer in rural areas where stringing new cable is too expensive.

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