Staying Connected Without a Modem

Soft modeming with Nokia Soft Data

by Ken Cotton

I used to get lots of strange looks, not to mention frowns, from folks waiting patiently in line as I plugged my laptop into a pay phone. I don't do that much any more - not because I'm daunted by the frowns, but because the process is such nuisance. Even after finding a modem-capable phone (of which, admittedly, there are plenty in Japan), it's such a chore to boot up, plug in, and start the download/upload process while trying to balance your laptop on the small public phonebooth shelf (or your knee). Not to mention rushing to pack everything up and make way for the next person when you finish.

Fortunately, today there's a better way: a mobile phone. When I bought my first mobile phone (I'm a relatively early adopter of useful technology), the cost of a 9600 baud PC Card modem was 40,000 plus and the cellular phone rates were sky high. While I could justify the cost of a cellular phone for business use or emergencies, I couldn't justify using it to surf the Web or send data.

But prices (both for the hardware, and the phone service fees) have been steadily dropping. And more and more when traveling, I've found myself yearning for the convenience of being able to connect via my laptop from somewhere other than at a pay phone or in a hotel room. So when the Computing Japan editor asked me to review Nokia Soft Data, I was eager to give it a try.

The software alternative to a hardware modem

First, Soft Data is not the Nokia 9000i Communicator (the combined mobile phone-personal digital assistant that seems to have made news everywhere). And it's not a phone, nor a PC Card modem, both of which Nokia sells here in Japan.

Rather, it is a software product that runs in your laptop and obviates the need for a physical modem. Soft Data allows you to connect your laptop to a mobile phone via a serial cable (included in the Soft Data package), and all the "modeming" is done in the software.

Installing Soft Data creates a "virtual communications port" in Windows 95. Thereafter, it behaves just like any other (hardware) modem, accessible by your favorite communications applications. Connecting in this way frees up a PC Card slot in your laptop for other peripherals, but a possibly even greater advantage is increased laptop battery life - up to 50% in some cases, according to Nokia. (A PC card modem can draw up to 200 mW of power from a laptop when in use, and even 15 mW in standby mode. Soft Data, by comparison, uses only 0.015 mW.) Unfortunately, at present Soft Data is compatible with just two digital phones: NTT's DoCoMo Nokia NM201 (800 MHz) and DoCoMo NM152 (1.5 GHz). I tested it with the former model; the 800-MHz spectrum covers a broader area and has a stronger signal, but it also has a higher basic monthly charge and connect rates.

The package includes a cable, one floppy, and installation and users guides. There is also a printout of the TIPS.TXT file from the floppy, which will prove useful if you plan to install on an English system without any way to read Japanese text (as I did). This file includes a list of tested machines and communications software, along with some troubleshooting advice.

According to the documentation, the minimum requirements for running Soft Data are Windows 95J (Japanese), a 60-MHz or faster Pentium computer with at least 8MB of RAM, and an RS-232C serial port for connecting the PC and phone. However, I successfully installed and used the Soft Data/NM201 phone combination with four laptops, only one of which met both the stated minimum CPU and language requirements.

Easy installation - even if your computer doesn't speak the language

After a close look at the screen captures in the installation guide, I felt confident that I could click my way through the multi-screen setup program even without being able to read their Japanese text on my English system. The Japanese appears under English Windows as strange characters (mojibake), and unfortunately having a program like KanjiKit or TwinBridge, which can create a Japanese environment on an English system, does not help.

Installing Soft Data was as easy as running setup.exe and clicking on "y" and "n" as appropriate. The setup routine did the rest, found an available communications port, and asked me to OK the directory in which it would install files. (Note that the mobile phone must also be connected and turned on during installation.) Total installation time, from inserting the floppy in the drive until I was up and running with a new Dialup Networking connection icon to my provider: Less than 15 minutes.

One other advantage of Soft Data over a PC Card modem is that you can check the status of the call by looking at a display on the phone. The model I tested had quite a feature set, including a choice of English or Japanese display and a method of tracking the time and cost of all calls made.

Connect from almost anywhere

Soft Data did take quite a bit of time to establish each connection: about 25 seconds from the time the modem on the other end answered until I was able to do anything. But once online, the throughput was what you would expect from a 9600 baud modem (an average transfer rate of about 0.7KB per second).

In the land of ISDN, this might seem slow, but for e-mail and simple text browsing it is sufficient - especially considering that I was able to browse the Web and send e-mail while traveling on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Odawara. I successfully connected on every attempt, although the phone would disconnect in most tunnels.

On the way back from my trip, I stopped at Starbucks in the underground shopping area of Tokyo Station for a cup of coffee. To my surprise, I could connect just fine, so ignoring the strange looks from other customers I took advantage of the opportunity to test just how quickly I could get on, send and check mail, and get off. Times ranged from 40 seconds when nothing was sent or received, up to a minute-and-a-half for sending 10 and receiving 2 average-length messages. According to the phone's call cost counter, this was \20 and \50 respectively, which is cheaper than most calls from a hotel room.

I also successfully sent faxes via Soft Data to two machines (though only at 4800 baud), but I was unable to receive faxes with either the Windows 95 faxing software or WinFax Pro 7.5. The documentation states that it should be possible to achieve 9,600 in ECM (which I believe is Error Correction Mode), but not having dealt with AT commands and S Register settings for years, I didn't try to fix this.

The only drawbacks to using Soft Data are that you're limited to a PC running Windows 95 (sorry, Mac and NT users), and the current selection of compatible mobile phones is severely limited. The lack of English installation software and manuals are only a minor setback; after all, this is Japan. I was satisfied with the English display on the phone, and could make do with the information available on the Nokia homepage.

If you're a "road warrior" who would like to stay connected almost anytime from just about anywhere in Japan, and are about to purchase a cellular phone (or already own one of the compatible Nokia models), you should seriously consider the Soft Data solution. I'm considering buying it for myself after I return the evaluation product.

Travelin' man Ken Cotton is vice president of the Tokyo PC Users Group. He can be reached, at home or on the road, at kc@gol.com


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