2000: A year in review

Although much of the mainstream media dubbed the Y2K bug a non-event, in fact billions of dollars spent on preventive measures helped update systems and bring them into compliance. Nothing happened on January 1, 2000? That's exactly what was supposed to occur.

As for the rest of the year, we saw mergers and breakups (well, a proposed big one), faster chips, shrinking hard drives, new versions of Windows, and a raft of technologies still inching toward widespread adoption. Those include wireless communications, Internet appliances, application services providers, desktop Linux, and a bunch of other things we mentioned in a retrospect of 1999.

This year we also weathered the Love Bug and denial-of-service attacks, and braced ourselves for similar nasties spreading to our Personal Digital Assistants and Web-enabled phones.

Hack attacks open year

Hackers hammered the Web early in 2000, launching denial-of-service attacks that felled several prominent Web sites. After all the attention to the Y2K bug, a new focus on security ensued. In the end, a Canadian teenager pleaded guilty to the attacks, but security experts warn such cybervandalism is easily replicated.

Some of us felt the unwanted love of the so-called Love Letter virus, launched in May. Philippine police arrested a computer science student, but lacked appropriate charges for the ill-defined digital vandalism. The battle against viruses continues.

(As if to add insult to injury in a year that saw a federal judge urge its divestiture, software giant Microsoft was also broken into by hackers.) Related concerns involve privacy, and not just from hackers. Online advertising provider DoubleClick took unwanted hits about its privacy practices and was among many Web businesses that clarified their procedures.

Concerns are ongoing about authorised snooping by the FBI, which uses a controversial e-mail interception technology dubbed "Carnivore." US Citizens' groups, individuals, and security vendors are watching the government's evaluation of its practice, and developers are offering protection from the surveillance.

Consolidation concerns

The big new coupling of 2000 probably won't be completed until 2001, when America Online weds Time Warner. Announced in January, the merger is under review by the US Federal Communications Commission, with approval expected shortly. Among the pair's notable compromises: agreement to open its broadband cable lines to competing access providers. But its most striking (if inadvertent) aid to the enemy is the merger itself -- which Microsoft attorneys cite as an example that a monopoly is not forever.

Microsoft's antitrust challenge

The ongoing antitrust charges against Microsoft hit a milestone when Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft broke the law, abusing its monopoly power in one market (operating systems) to dominate another (browsers). The judge urged Microsoft and the US Justice Department to settle, but they didn't -- and Jackson ordered a breakup into two companies. The case remains in the federal appeals court, after the US Supreme Court declined to take it on a fast track.

Wintel sets new priorities (and speeds)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates initiated some shuffling at the top, himself. Gates stepped aside in January, giving longtime second-in-command Steve Ballmer the title of chief executive officer as well as president. Gates remains Microsoft's chairman as well as its new chief software architect, where he oversees the construction of Windows in its many panes, which made several debuts in 2000. Among them:

Windows 2000, unveiled in February, featured greater reliability and scalability in a version of the operating system aimed at business customers.

Windows Millennium Edition was completed in June, but shipped in September. Aimed at consumers, it bundles such multimedia apps as Movie Maker, Media Player 7, a Home Networking Wizard, tools for automated repairs, and IE 5.5.

Whistler, meanwhile, is released in beta, offering a peek at its support for multiple user accounts, as well as many of the same multimedia functions as Windows Me.

It's not an OS, but almost as ubiquitous: Also in development is the next version of Microsoft Office, dubbed Office 10 in its beta form. A peek at a very early edition features Web tools, workgroup functions, and speech recognition.

Fast chips and challenges

And what will these new operating systems run on? A broad selection of ever-faster, ever-cheaper CPUs from those rapidly moving rivals, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices -- with some new competition from Transmeta.

Intel's chips jumped about a gigahertz in speed over the course of the year. The chip giant introduced a 533-MHz Celeron in January, and hit 1.5-GHz with a Pentium 4 in November. Throughout the year, consumers enjoyed price cuts passed from the chip vendor to PC manufacturers to buyers.

AMD leapfrogged Intel a few times during the year, first with the 800-MHz Athlon in January. AMD's 1-GHz Athlon took the speed crown briefly in March; a few days later, Intel's 1-GHz Pentium III won the PC WorldBench test.

But 800-MHz Athlons updated with AMD's level-2 memory cache ("Thunderbird") approached 1-GHz performance in tests. AMD's fastest chip is a 1.2-GHz Athlon.

Intel's 2000 travails

Intel took a few speed bumps. The company replaced motherboards using its 820 chip set when customers reported problems. It recalled some 1.13-GHz Pentium III systems in August when a glitch appeared.

It delayed, then killed, Timna, a CPU that was to integrate graphics and memory controllers. Postponed is Itanium, its first 64-bit chip. After a brief delay, Pentium 4 made its debut to mixed reviews. Intel promises a 2-GHz Pentium 4 in 2001.

Intel also questioned whether its choice of Rambus, a more expensive internal memory, is worth the price. The chip maker is also supporting SDRAM in the Pentium 4, which could mean lower system prices.

The Net gets mobile

Meanwhile, mobile processors gained ground with Intel's battery-saving SpeedStep technology and speeds that climbed to 800 MHz. Keeping things interesting, AMD released the Duron, its own low-end chip line, to compete with the Celerons. By year's end, Intel was promising 1-GHz Mobile Pentium III chips in 2001.

Upstart Transmeta unveiled its Crusoe chip to great fanfare in January, promising the power-friendly chip would extend battery life in laptops. But by year end, Transmeta had suffered a few bumps as well. The longer battery life turned out to have at least an initial trade-off in lower performance, although the chip is said to "learn" and adapt with use.

Both IBM and Compaq dropped plans to ship early Crusoe-based notebooks, and some vendors offered replacements for defective chips. Still, the chip draws interest, if also caution.

Transmeta has been suggested as the chip of choice for another emerging product category: Internet appliances. Yep, they've been emerging for years now, but 2000 has seen some major vendors jumping on board.

The giants square off

If Web appliances are emerging slowly, existing contraptions are quickly being wired. Several companies are plugging away on Web-enabled TV, and phones and PDAs are gaining Internet access. Both Microsoft and AOL stepped up their development on TVs--and elsewhere. AOL's Anywhere strategy puts the service on wireless devices.

Among the services popping up on new devices is instant messaging, which enjoyed a surge of interest in 2000. AOL is offering its AIM on a variety of devices, as people adopt the service for business and personal use. Meanwhile, a group of vendors continues to work on a standard for interoperability among instant messaging service protocols.

Microsoft's and AOL's other battlefields include browsers and portals, as Netscape now competes with IE under an AOL banner. Microsoft's revamped MSN portal is more consumer-oriented, targeting an AOL audience. Still, AOL retains its crown as leading Internet access provider, claiming 26 million members at year's end.

Microsoft's .Net strategy, announced in June, is no less ambitious. The software giant's Next Generation Windows Services is built on XML, so you can run Microsoft applications from any Net-accessing device.

Handhelds get hotter (and handier)

Primary among those Web-enabled devices are PDAs and cell phones. Palm-based devices from Palm and Handspring felt competition from Microsoft with the release of Pocket PC devices, powered by a newly revamped version of Windows CE. Sony joined the market, introducing the Clie in August.

Even the line between phones and PDAs is blurring, as Web phones get PDA functions, and handhelds get modems and add-ons with phone functions. And let's not forget the add-ons that let either device act as an MP3 player. But so far, only handhelds are available with colour displays. With functions growing and prices dropping, analysts predict sales will double in 2001.

Other gadgets to watch: digital cameras, which continue to become more capable and affordable. Devices boast more megapixels and combine functions (a Webcam marries a still camera from Agfa, and Ricoh introduces a combo of e-mail, fax, and Web browser in a digital camera). Is it film or digital? Another line blurs.

From free to fee

Also blurring in 2000 is the definition of the word "free." Analysts predicted a proliferation of free ISPs and services, and they can be had -- but for a price. A few of the freebie deals have ceased.

But here's a newcomer: free domain name registration from Network Commerce, which then hopes to sell you hosting services (and newsletters).

Another freebie that's still shaking out is the whole digital music scene. MP3.com has made peace with most of the major music labels, so they get a cut of the action and MP3.com stays online with some free and fee-based options. Notorious Napster, in the meantime, remains in court, although it, too, has made allies in the mainstream music business. Stay tuned.

Also still in the wings: ASPs, broadband access, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and Linux. All made progress in 2000. But we're still running our apps locally (especially if we don't have broadband). ASPs are part of Microsoft's .Net strategy. The LinuxWorld conference drew an enthusiastic minority, but its desktop penetration remains limited. Linux did draw some good allies in Dell and IBM, which both ship the open source operating system and applications.

Dot-com death watch

Back to those consolidations...the tough kind. 2000 saw the suffering and sometimes demise of a number of tech companies, not all of them dot-coms. Among them Priceline (undergoing cutbacks and closures of its subsidiaries), the controversial file-swapping site Scour (faced with copyright infringement lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy), voice-recognition giant Lernout & Hauspie (also filed for bankruptcy, seeking to reorganise) and dStore (bought up by Harris Scarfe).

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Peggy Watt

PC World
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