Mixed in with the traditional New York holiday scents of burnt chestnuts and overheated pretzels is the faint smell of a tech industry recovery.
Many predicted this slow road to wellness, but the track record on technology predictions in 2002 for the soon-to-depart 2003 was just as spotty as ever. Here is my second annual random review of technology predictions for this year.
Following a year littered with the corpses of failed dot-coms, tech companies and high-tech hopes, 2003 predictions from pundits big and small seemed to gather at the poles of ultra-cautious and fantastic. The reality was more of a fastball down the middle with a little spin at the end.
The Aberdeen Group did a remarkably good job of predicting the big tech issues of 2003: spam, identity theft, and e-mail security. But Aberdeen, like many others, missed the growing problem that content piracy would become and the proactive RIAA stance (like using IP information to prosecute alleged pirates), and the Motion Picture Association of America's anti-piracy campaign.
Former InfoWorld columnist and current PBS tech personality Robert X. Cringely made some interesting predictions last year.
He was not alone in opining that HP/Compaq would continue "its long slide into oblivion." I heard similar comments from many of my tech-savvy friends. However, HP spent the past year diversifying and shipping industry leading products like its Media Center PCs and PDAs.
I will make a mini-prediction for 2004, though, and say that HP needs to wake up to the fact that any handheld that isn't also a phone and camera will be doomed next year.
Cringely, like others, saw Linux throwing Microsoft into panic resulting in reactive marketing. Some of that happened, but no one predicted the Linux community all but self-destructing thanks to infighting that turned litigious (SCO, IBM, the GPL — what a mess).
Microsoft's Palladium security initiative did, as Cringely sagely predicted, go away — sort of. It didn't die as much as become reborn under a new, unpronounceable name — NGSCB (Next-Generation Secure Computing Base). When Microsoft releases Longhorn sometime in 2005 or 2006, we'll see and hear much more about this somewhat complex trusted-computing solution.
And Cringely was only half right when he predicted people becoming less worried about viruses and more upset about spam. Spam is now a problem of epic proportions, but some of the most powerful anti-spam products we've ever seen flooded the market this year, and I see the industry making serious progress in the war.
What Really Shook the Web in '03
No one predicted the one-two punch of Blaster and SoBig last August, even though Microsoft's growing lists of security-mandated updates should have been major warning signals. Those powerful virus attacks probably had a bigger impact on technology than any other events of 2003.
Cringely also talked about the Internet becoming an agent of social change, though he couldn't quite say how. This was remarkably prescient.
I wrote earlier this year about the flash mob and Friendster phenomena. Both use the Internet either partially or completely to bring people together and even create powerful social groups — that may occasionally do completely unreasonable or irrational things.
Friendster, however, turned out to be a campaign tool, with users creating profiles for their favorite Democratic presidential candidates. If Howard Dean is elected to office in 2004 (which seems unlikely), what a social change that would be as a result of technology.
'B' Stings 'G-Mania'
I found many pundits predicting a fast fade for 802.11b in the face of a ratified and much faster 802.11g.
Well, it hasn't really happened. That's largely because 802.11b still works just fine. And the companies and individuals who invested in it in 2002 and early 2003 were not racing to spend more money to upgrade — especially since just one 802.11b device can slow all devices communicating with an 802.11g access point.
Not everyone got sucked into the g-mania. ComputerWeekly.com accurately predicted that market confusion would leave 802.11b in the lead for at least all of 2003.
Interactive TV Draws a Blank Screen
Over at ClickZ.com, columnist Jeffrey Graham proclaimed that companies would create more broadband content in 2003. He was right, but how hard was that to predict? It was simply supply and demand.
Graham talked about the rise of interactive TV or iTV — a term people like to throw around that refers to the ability to do something with TV while you watch it. His prediction did not come true, and even Microsoft's release of the Media Center OS along with systems from HP, Toshiba, et al, did little to juice up this market.
This is mainly because Media Centers do not let you interact with TV. Everything remains separate. There's the computer interface for managing multimedia content and recording TV and there's TV — a completely closed environment.
Interactive TV is just another pipe dream that will remain little more than smoke well past 2004.
Those Annoying Ads
Graham did better with his predictions about ad trends, noting that we'd see fewer and better ads online.
Some companies, like Orbitz, have tried implementing ads that have entertainment value. But plenty of ads remain in the form of banner and pop-up monsters. People hate or ignore these ads, yet the offending techniques continue to be as pervasive as ever.
2004 will be another painful year in terms of the quality of online advertising and response. Salon.com predicted, with what it thought was its tongue in its cheek, that online advertising would shift to a streaming model in which, for every 20 minutes you spend on the Web, you're forced to watch three minutes of ads.
It got part of this right, unfortunately.
Online companies, and service providers like AOL, are experimenting with more streaming ad content, but it's still passive rather than being in the form of interstitials that you have to watch before you can view your content. I don't expect that to change much in 2004.
Digital Camera Focus Blurred
Thom Hogan, a digital camera enthusiast, had some market-related predictions. He said that the digital camera market would no longer be able to support 30 manufacturers each hawking 30 products. He correctly noted that many of the cameras use the same guts anyway.
Unfortunately, I saw no consolidation to speak of. This ultra-hot market appears to be able to support even more camera manufacturers and models every year.
Hogan also predicted an untimely death for the Foveon digital-imaging chip technology. Not one major manufacturer had picked up the chip and 2003 didn't look very promising.
By now I'm sure Thom has noted that PC Magazine named the Foveon X3 5M CMOS Direct Image Sensor its Tech Ex winner for digital input devices in 2003. And the Sigma SD10 digital camera based on the chip got a stellar review just last month.
OK, one small manufacturer and a couple of awards is not necessarily a slam-dunk success, but it's no failure, either. I expect big things from Foveon in 2004.
Neither Hogan, nor anyone else I can find for that matter, predicted Kycoera's rapid refresh digital-imaging chip that lets you take 3-megapixel images in continuous-shot mode at 3.5 images per second.
Hogan did have a couple of good insights, like the fact that disposable digital cameras would ship this year. Kodak and Ritz Camera made that a reality.
I had a devil of a time finding anyone who mentioned the reemergence of Voice over IP, the triumph of affordable LCDs over CRTs, the large flat-screen TV/PC hybrid display craze, or phone cameras proliferating to the point that people would be taking digital photos in bad and unexpected places.
Overall, 2003's predictions were another boatload of half-baked prognostications with a few home runs thrown in. It felt a lot like years past.