Winners and Losers 2005

Researchers at Information Security Partners recently identified a security flaw with SunnComm's MediaMax, an alternative copy-protection scheme found on other Sony BMG CDs. The flaw could allow a remote attacker to hijack a user's PC. This time, Sony responded with a patch almost immediately--which was quickly found to have the exact same flaw. Can you say "consumer boycott?"

WINNER: ITunes

Kudos go to Apple and ITunes for holding fast to a $1-per-song pricing scheme (for now at least) in the face of extreme pressure from the record labels, as well as for convincing Hollywood to allow its video content to be downloaded (for $2 per show). Since the announcement in October, more than 3 million videos had been sold at press time, proving that people will pay for media online if it's fairly priced and easy to get. Let's just hope downloaders aren't watching them while driving.

LOSER: The Grokster Decision

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Grokster v. MGM, holding that providers of P2P networks could be held liable for inducing copyright infringement. The impact on illegal file swappers--who have plenty of other options for doing what they shouldn't be doing--was negligible. But the decision dealt a blow to the rights of ordinary consumers by narrowing the reach of another famous copyright case. The 1984 Betamax decision kept the VCR from being sued out of existence and led to the creation of a $20 billion video-rental industry, as well as the DVD and other innovations. The Grokster decision may make technology companies more reluctant to bring new ideas to market.

WINNER: Wikipedia

You can't do a Web search on any major topic without this wiki popping up near the top of the results page. Heavily linked, authoritative, and constantly updated, the world's largest interactive encyclopedia came into its own this year. According to Hitwise, Wikipedia became the second-most-visited reference site on the Web this year, trailing only Dictionary.com.

LOSER: Wikipedia

Popular, yes. Accurate? Not necessarily. Because its entries can be edited by anyone, the Wikipedia can be the source of dubious or biased information. Like the entry on "Swiftboating" that was recently Swiftboated itself by an anti-John Kerry partisan, or the article that falsely implicated an innocent man in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. To the wiki's credit, both items were quickly pulled and corrected; contributors are now required to register for the site, which should, theoretically, limit the number of spurious entries. But with more than 800,000 articles in English and well over 1 million in 15 other languages, foolproof policing is well nigh impossible. Then again, the Journal Nature compared Wikipedia to the venerable Encyclopaedia Brittanica and found hundreds of errors in both--though the wiki had slightly more.

LOSER: TiVo

TiVo fans everywhere were crushed last September when the digital-video-recording service began responding to Macrovision's copy-protection signals, which can automatically block recording of pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming or delete them from your TiVo box after a week. Before you know it, TiVo won't let you fast-forward through commercials or replay those wardrobe malfunctions.

WINNER BY LOSING: Web TV

No, not that browser-on-your-TV gadget that Microsoft bought in 1997 and effectively killed. I'm talking about original programming broadcast on the Web using podcasts, video blogs, and the like. It really got started in 2005, and most of the content is, well, god-awful. But the potential for a smarter, weirder, funnier form of TV is enormous. Memo to Hollywood: Watch your back.

Dan Tynan writes the Gadget Freak column for PC World magazine. He is author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005) and writes The WitList satirical blog.

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