Glitch stops modems on laptops

Human error is being blamed for a software driver problem that caused modems to freeze up on some late-model laptops at the stroke of midnight Feb. 21.

The problem with modems on laptops with Windows operating systems has set teams of developers scurrying to provide online fixes to users at several companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Gateway Inc. and ESS Technology Inc., which wrote the problematic software.

ESS officials and one industry analyst put the number of affected machines worldwide in the tens of thousands.

Since the error is located in an algorithm inside the time-based software coding for Windows modem drivers, users must reset the date on their notebooks to Feb. 20 or earlier to reactivate their modems, ESS officials said.

ESS refused to name which companies use the troublesome modem driver, except that there are several worldwide. It has posted a generic fix for four operating systems: Windows 98 Special Edition, Windows 2000, Windows ME and Windows NT.

According to an HP spokeswoman, affected models include the Pavilion n5000 and the Omnibook XE3, both of which hit the market last November. The affected Gateway model is the Solo 3350, which went on sale last September, a Gateway spokeswoman said.

Neither HP nor Gateway had posted explanations about the problem or any online fixes specific to their machines as of 3 p.m. EST. Officials at both companies said the only solution so far is to turn back the date on each computer’s clock.

ESS, Gateway and HP officials all said they don’t expect the modem bug to affect company financials.

Even so, International Data Corp. analyst Alan Promisel said Gateway and HP might have sold “tens of thousands” of machines affected by the modem freeze, and argued that the problem could hit Gateway harder because it is having greater financial problems and recently announced layoffs.

“For Gateway, an announcement such as this does little to rebuild confidence in its product lines,” Promisel said. (IDC is a sister company to Computerworld.)

When the software problem was discovered at 4 a.m. Wednesday, teams at ESS went to work to create the generic replacement driver that has already been posted, said Bill Wong, the company’s director of marketing.

“We’re over the hump with the fix, but that’s only in a sense because it was an easy problem to fix,” said Skip Effler, senior vice president of worldwide sales at ESS, a US$300 million firm in Fremont, Calif. “But the logistics of working with our customers are the issue. We will make all … efforts possible to get the drivers” customized for each customer.

HP officials said they’re working to find a solution that allows laptop users to use their modems with their computers set to the correct date. ESS said that any software fix is required to meet the Windows Hardware Qualifying Laboratory standard. That way, it won’t adversely affect other laptop functions.

Wong said the error was introduced months ago when an ESS worker updated the modems from older Windows operating systems to newer ones. The particular code in which the error occurred is designed to prevent users from harassing others on a network with repeated calls and is required in some European countries and in Japan, Wong said.

“There was a problem with the constant value for time, and it’s fixed,” he said.

The problem is a first for ESS, Wong said. “We’ve definitely learned already that customer service is a No. 1 priority and that with software, something like this could happen to any company,” he said.