For years the computer industry focused on producing speedier processors for PCs. Now the focus is on improving the performance of the pipeline itself

The personal computer is becoming the business-communications appliance of our time. Over the next two to three years, a new generation of low-cost high-speed communications links will be installed in homes and in the office, changing forever the way people work and communicate. What will these changes mean, and when will they arrive? Here's a look at some of them.

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Integrated services digital network (ISDN)

High-speed modems have opened up a new world to telecommuters and other home PC users. But their relatively slow speed has limited their use to simple text documents.

A new technology has arrived that will change all that. ISDN is a "middleband" digital service that runs at 128 kilobits per second, which is about 10 times faster than the fastest existing modem.With it, businesspeople at remote sites can work together from their desktop PCs on documents, spreadsheets, and other applications while seeing and talking to one another via videoconferencing technology.

ISDN services are also helping other home users. The lines are the best and most reasonably priced way to connect home-based PCs to those in, say, offices, schools, libraries, and government agencies. They give home-based PC users a lot of flexibility, allowing them access, for instance, to files on their office-based LANs that were previously too big to work on from a remote location. Users can easily gain access to graphics, pictures, presentation files, and lengthy text documents without a substantial wait.

Most important, in an industry dogged by incompatibilities, ISDN lines represent a worldwide standard. They are widely available today in Europe, Asia, and most of the United States. A clear breakthrough in communications technology, ISDN will become widespread as innovative products and services that tap its potential become available.

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Local area network (LAN)

Another key communications technology is the local area network (LAN). LANs, comprising PCs and workstations, have become the foundation of business communications. Initially used to split disk-storage space and printers among several users, LANs are now employed by most large companies for mission-critical applications. But as LANs have grown in size, they have become more complicated and more expensive to support. Recent Gartner Group studies have found that the cost of managing and supporting a network over five years is higher than the cost of setting up the network's hardware and software.

Now a new cross-industry standard, the desktop management interface (DMI), has emerged to remedy that. DMI uses a "fingerprinting" mechanism to enable all the different parts of a network (PCs, servers, software-application packages, and peripherals such as printers and modems) to understand and communicate with one another regardless of who manufactured the parts. It represents a landmark agreement and promises to revolutionize the way LANs operate. New hardware and software products are beginning to emerge this fall that both simplify LAN use and provide significant savings in support costs. Look for DMI compliance in any products you intend to buy for the network.

LAN performance is also a matter of concern. The capacity of LANs, large as it is, constrains communications. Since the introduction of Ethernet, the LAN standard in the early 1980s, the available bandwidth for data transmission has remained constant at 10 megabits per second, while the PC has become 100 times faster over that same time period. Today's LAN performance is inadequate for those high-performance PCs, and as a result is creating a communications bottleneck. Intel, along with 40 other industry vendors, has announced support for a near-term Ethernet upgrade called Fast Ethernet. It will provide 10 times the bandwidth at about two times the cost. What's more, Fast Ethernet can use existing software.

In another three to five years, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology will also reach the desktop. It will both improve performance and be appropriate for multimedia applications.

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Cable connection

Eventually, PCs will be connected domestically and to PCs all over the world by installed cable lines. Coaxial cable, as those lines are called, has much greater bandwidth than the currently used telephone lines. Within the next two to five years, downloading 5- or 10-megabit files to your PC will take seconds instead of minutes over always-ready cable connections. The lines will also permit the development of a whole new class of applications, rich in pictorial and video content.

To get the most from your PCs, make sure their communications links don't choke them. Both ISDN and Fast Ethernet are becoming widely available and boost performance 10-fold at little extra cost. ATM and cable will go one step further. Successful companies will gain a competitive advantage by combining the new networks with their PCs.

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Andrew S. Grove is president and CEO of Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif.