— -- It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. In fact, 2005 was a lot like any other year, only for some reason it seemed longer than most. It was a year where blogs and podcasting threatened to overtake mainstream media, where a Web search giant tried to be everything for everybody but instead became a magnet for critics, and where the recording industry won a major battle against peer-to-peer file sharing only to shoot itself in the foot (and every other appendage) over a disastrous copy-protection scheme. And that's just for starters.
Here, then, are one observer's completely unscientific and highly opinionated picks for the biggest winners and losers of the year in technology.
Meet your new best friends, Sergey and Larry. Want a free e-mail account? No problem. A blog? Satellite maps? How about a searchable library of every book ever written? Here, have some free Wi-Fi. Oh, and don't forget to enter the stuff you want to sell into Google's new classified ad/online garage sale/whatever-you-want database. No charge, and no need to say thanks. Remember that silly dot-com-era notion that you could make money by giving things away? Guess what? It actually works!
What does a company with staggering amounts of computing power, the world's best brains, and a share price north of $400 do? Anything it darn well pleases. But the next thing you know it's getting sued for copyright violations by the Association of American Publishers and becoming part of the hacker's tool kit. Google's seemingly unquenchable ambition and near-monopoly on everything it touches--otherwise known as "Microsoft Syndrome"--is making more and more people nervous.
WINNER: Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Think of it as a Game Boy for arrested adolescents. Sony managed to squeeze one of the world's most powerful gaming systems into a unit slightly larger than a paperback novel. The PSP also holds photos, plays MP3s, and displays major Hollywood releases on its 4-inch LCD (though with some price tags approaching $30, the PSP's Universal Media Discs can cost more than a comparable DVD). It comes with a Wi-Fi-enabled Web browser, and rumors of a cell phone add-on abound. On the downside, it does not make daiquiris--yet.
LOSER: Motorola Rokr E1
The Rokr was supposed to be the new "It" gadget, a marriage between the world's most stylish cell phone and the planet's best digital music player, the IPod. But it was roundly panned for its skimpy 100-song capacity, painfully slow data transfer, and sluggish interface. This marriage is destined to be shorter than one of J. Lo's.
WINNER: The Survival Blog of New Orleans
Operating from the offices of Web host DirectNIC in downtown New Orleans, the Interdictor blog kept posting during the worst of Hurricane Katrina, powered by a 750-kilowatt diesel generator and a fiber-optic hookup. Blogger Michael Barnett and his colleagues slept in the air-conditioned room where they kept the servers, and blogged throughout the crisis. The Interdictor's live Webcam offered some of the first images of the city following the disaster, and the blog has continued to cover the region's recovery and rebuilding.
LOSER: The FEMA Web site
WINNER: Apple Computer
Apple started the year with the Mac Mini, a pint-size $499 Macintosh sans monitor, and ended it with the long-awaited video-enabled IPod. In between, Apple announced it would start using Intel chips in its new line of Macs. The first Intel-based Macs should debut at around the same time as Windows Vista, which could lead to the first serious OS competition since, oh, 1989. All in all, a very good year in Apple-achia.
LOSER: Apple Computer
For a company that turned rumor wrangling into an art form, Apple proved mighty touchy when rumor sites revealed information about the Mac Mini and other products weeks before the company's official announcements. Touchy enough, in fact, to sic their legal beagles upon them. In one case, a California judge ruled the sites could not protect the anonymity of their sources (that ruling is currently under appeal). Apparently, the sites broke St. Steven of Jobs' 10th Commandment: Thou shalt not release information without prior approval. The result? Apple still doesn't have the information it sought, but did get a ton of bad PR.
LOSER: Cisco Systems
When Cisco Systems learned a third-party consultant planned to discuss security flaws in its software at last July's Black Hat conference, the company demanded he change his presentation and instructed conference employees to tear the relevant pages out of the Black Hat program. No matter; Mike Lynn gave his presentation anyway, and the resulting uproar over Cisco's response blew back in the company's face. Cisco says it has fixed the flaws Lynn identified. However, Lynn has recently claimed that Cisco's Internetwork Operating System--software used by thousands of Internet routers--is riddled with other bugs, some more serious than the one he revealed last July.
WINNER: Juniper Networks
In November, Cisco's primary competitor in the router market, Juniper Networks, hired a new networking security expert. His name? Mike Lynn.
LOSER: Sony BMG Entertainment
Adding copy protection to CDs is onerous enough, but Sony BMG Entertainment and its tech partner First 4 Internet went completely beyond the pale. Insert certain Sony BMG CDs into your PC's disc drive and they would secretly install First 4 Internet's XCP software, which not only limited the number of copies you could make, but also made your system vulnerable to hack attacks. Sony BMG then posted a "fix" that made matters worse, before issuing a recall of the music CDs, offering refunds, and promising to discontinue using XCP. It turns out the record company knew about the vulnerability for at least two weeks before blogger Mark Russinovich made the news public last Halloween. Thanks for sharing, Sony.
EXTREME LOSER: Sony BMG Entertainment
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.