Miscellaneous Ramblings

Lack of USB Modem Support Could Be a Lion Deal Breaker

Charles Moore - 2011.08.08 (updated) - Tip Jar

TidBITS' Matt Neuberg made an interesting and astute observation in a column last Friday lamenting the iOSification of OS X 10.7 Lion, noting:

"Some people think of their computer as a Prius hybrid; it's complicated under the hood, but in actual usage it just works. I think of my computer more like an 1960s manual-shift VW Beetle: it does what I tell it, and I can often repair it if things go wrong. Lion makes me feel I'm being chucked out of the driver's seat."

Exactly! My thus-far vicarious disaffection with Lion and the direction Apple is obviously bent on going with OS X is being reinforced by my underwhelmed-ness with the "magic" of the iOS on my new iPad 2. I'm definitely a 1960s manual-shift, manual everything, fix it yourself, control-freak kind of guy. I don't have a Prius, but the nannying "features" in my Mercury Grand Marquis, such as not being able to shift the automatic tranny into gear without your foot on the brake, and then automatically locking the doors when you shift into Drive, to name just two examples, annoy me profoundly, although in general I'm quite fond of the car.

However, in terms of Lion, this may all be academic for the foreseeable future, since my upgrading to OS X 10.7 anytime soon is looking more and more remote as the reality of its manifold incompatibilities with legacy software and technologies that are still mission-critical to me sink in.

The proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" deal-breaker looks like it may be Apple's not bothering to rewrite the driver for its Apple USB Modem to support Lion. I'm no programmer, but my inference is that doing so would have been a relatively minor and trivial matter. As it's been explained to me, the Apple USB Modem that was sold from 2005 to 2009 (it seems I just got mine under the proverbial wire) was merely a simple telephone line interface with the actual modem function emulated in the system software based on the Motorola SM56 design. It's this emulator that Apple has deliberately chosen not to support any longer - presumably out of contempt for what it judges to be obsolete technologies and its monomania about pushing us either into the iCloud or throwing us under the bus. Our choice, take it or leave it.

Of course, telephone dial-up modems are obsolete technology, but what Apple doggedly and obstinately refuses to acknowledge or accommodate is that they're necessary and non-optional technologies for literally millions (and probably billions) of Internet second-class citizens worldwide.

The boilerplate throwaway riposte to complaints like this is to "get with the 21st century" and upgrade your Internet service. Unfortunately, that's not an option for a lot of users, and there are large spaces of even North America where broadband service is simply not available, save for in some cases via prohibitively expensive satellite inks.

In my neck of the woods, we've had access to broadband via wireless for less than two years. I signed up for the earliest possible installer visit I could schedule, but the service, decently speedy though it is, has proven far short of being 100% reliable, making it necessary to retain dial-up as a back-up. The last major broadband outage here lasted five days, and for someone like me who is a Web-worker, that long a hiatus would be catastrophic without the dial-up fallback.

Consequently, lack of telephone modem support in Lion makes it a nonstarter for me, compounding the other major stumbling-block of my primary production tool Tex-Edit Plus being a Carbon application that won't run in Lion either. For me, Apple's arbitrary termination of Rosetta PowerPC emulation in Lion amounts to an act of gratuitous and supercilious vandalism.

However, while finding a satisfactory alternative to my heavily-customized (with AppleScripts) Tex-Edit Plus, while painful, might be doable, I simply can't risk trying to get along without dial-up Internet support.

Which isn't a happy lookout for this consummate Mac OS fan of nearly 20 years standing. InfoWorld's Tom Yager, in his recent and hyperbolically enthusiastic review of OS X Lion, said that Apple is no longer afraid to tell users who don't upgrade, "You're going to be left behind," and predicts that by this time next year a preponderance of apps on the Mac App Store will require Lion. I reluctantly agree, which presents me with the potential choice of whether to opt for a bunch of kludgy workarounds in order to stay in the Mac fold, or to move on to Linux or even Windows as my main production platform.

Or, perhaps there's at least a possibility that it need not be that dire. According to the Sustworks.com site, full-fledged telephone modems like the US Robotics USB modems or the Zoom V.92 USB Modem might be able to work with Lion,* but the imponderable, as far as I've been able to discover at this writing, is whether there's driver software compatible with Lion. If there is or will be, that would be the solution.

I never thought I would be buying another telephone modem after purchasing the Apple unit in 2009, but it's a funny old world.

* UPDATE: A reader has written that both USRobotics and Zoom Telephonics have USB modems - the USRobotics 56K USB Faxmodem ($43 at Amazon.com) and Zoom Model 3095 V.92 USB Mini External Modem ($46 at Amazon.com) respectively - that explicitly support Lion. We'll have more details in the next mailbag columns.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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