One of the first modems I ever saw was a clunky device onto which my friend Eddie, who was running a state-of-the-art Commodore 64, placed a telephone handset. The combination of hardware and phone lines started screaming as it sent a rather large data file across town to another computer at a rate of something like 300bps. In retrospect, it probably would have been faster to drive across town and hand deliver it but, since I was living in New Mexico at the time, we were more disposed to staying in and drinking cold lemonade while this contraption did its unbelievable work.
Although today we would have simply emailed it as an attachment, serial communications is still very much in use as an e-commerce enabler.
You're probably not going to send a simple text file using modem-to-modem communications, but it's still in wide use as a tool for polling remote devices or for conducting financial transactions. It can, however, get expensive, and the enterprise using it is limited by the number of modems they have in their modem pool.
Travelers Express/MoneyGram, for example, used it to offer their money transfer services around the world. Here's how it worked: Each MoneyGram agent had a dedicated phone line, which MoneyGram paid for.
When a customer wants to wire money, say from San Francisco to Tokyo, the agent in San Francisco would get on the PC and use the desktop modem to dial out and check the database of 160,000 agents worldwide for the location of the agent in Tokyo. They would then take the customer's money, dial out again onto the international X.25 network through the various associated gateways, and execute the transaction.
This was, to say the least, secure but expensive. Also, since it required a dedicated phone line, usually only one agent in the office would be equipped to conduct these transactions.
A company called Dialout.Net has come up with an alternative, which it calls the Serial Communications Convergence to IP (SccIP) Modem. This is a software-only modem that Internet-enables modem-based applications, allowing users to avoid having a dedicated phone line, large modem banks, and costly private networks. MoneyGram deployed the SccIP modems to all of its agents and saved a tremendous amount of money. According to Dialout.Net Vice President of Marketing Lauren Prior, it only takes about 20 minutes to get an agent up and running on the technology. Each office was able to free up the phone line that was previously dedicated to the hardware modem, and MoneyGram no longer had to pay for 160,000 phone lines. If you've ever had to wait in line to send a MoneyGram, you'll appreciate this from a customer point of view -- now, every agent in each location are equipped and customers can get served faster.
No customer premises equipment is required; the system permits up to 256 virtual modems per PC, and any number of PCs per account. So, instead of being limited by the number of hardware modems you have, you get capacity on demand. The client software is free, otherwise there is only a $995 one-time activation fee, and then you only pay by the minute.