IN computer networking, 1995 could be defined as the year the desktop personal computer came to life. And it is a trend that we will continue to see more of next year, with a number of new technologies that will further entrench the PC as a primary communications tool. Long gone are the days of the stand-alone PC, where a personal computer was just that - personal. These stand-alone systems could provide all the necessary word-processing and spreadsheet functionality but their very nature made them of limited use because they were not connected to the outside world. The growing popularity of the Internet, along with various high-end video-conferencing services, has changed forever the way users view their PC. The Internet and the growing popularity of E-mail has had the biggest impact on the market. It has been nothing, if not impossible, for users to avoid the Internet in Hong Kong, with more than 40 independent Internet service providers plying their trade. But the communications services that were launched in Hong Kong during the past year were not limited to the Internet. Video-conferencing became an affordable reality. Hongkong Telecom started offering a financially viable desktop video-conferencing service in mid-year, an ISDN-based (integrated services digital network) system that allows users to turn a fairly basic stand-alone PC into a video-conferencing terminal. The new service is being marketed through Hongkong Telecom CSL and is called OnSight. It is based on a technology developed by the US-based microprocessor manufacturer, Intel, called ProShare. The OnSight service goes beyond simple video-conferencing. Sure, a window on the PC will display a moving picture of the person you are 'connected' to, but the system is designed to allow a broader conference to take place, so that users can open and work on documents and spreadsheets together, even if they are separated by thousands of miles. The ISDN technology on which the system is based is not exactly 'broadband' but is of high enough capacity to serve its purpose. The 'full-motion' video window can still get a little jerky - clearly it is not like watching a VCR - but is a vast improvement on the earliest PC-based video-conferencing systems. You can rent the service from Hongkong Telecom with all the hardware and software needed to get it up and running. Depending on whether you get a 12-month, 24-month or 36-month package, the OnSight pricing starts at about $1,500 per month - excluding the ISDN line rental - and is discounted from there, depending on the rental period selected. The cost of an ISDN line is not insignificant. Though ISDN services in the US can be had for charges of about US$25 per month, in Hong Kong those charges are somewhat more expensive, at about $750 per month. Still, compared to the video-conferencing systems of just a few years ago, when you had to actually book time in a Telecom or AT&T conferencing facility, and charges by the hour were astronomical compared to that charged today, the OnSight system is cheap by comparison. These new systems should be viewed favourably by the Hong Kong business community as the potential cost savings of such systems are quite real - such as cutting down on executives' travel expenses. Meeting by video-conference is not always ideal but, in many situations, the equipment is flexible enough and powerful enough to get the job done. Although Hongkong Telecom CSL will package a system nicely for customers, it is hardly the consumers' only option. It is possible to buy the required ProShare hardware and software at retail and install it on your PC yourself. Then it is simply a matter of renting an ISDN line from Telecom. All the ProShare technology is PC-based, so compatibility should not be a problem. However, it would be advisable for anyone setting up such a system to ensure they have a Pentium PC. The desktop PC has come alive in other ways, too, during 1995 - most of which can be attributed to the Internet. In addition to E-mail, an increasing numbers of companies in the region are setting up World-Wide Web pages as part of their marketing programmes, meaning that, increasingly, executives in the region are getting things done through their PC as a communications terminal. Several companies started bundling different communications services as a way of 'adding value' to their overall systems. For example, paging companies Star Paging and ABC Communications offer a service whereby users can elect to be alerted to the arrival of new E-mail - through their pager device. Or, they can elect to have messages from just certain correspondents trigger the pager. All of these are examples of an on-going trend which will continue during 1996, whereby the PC is increasingly being used as a communications terminal.