When people try to describe what using technology was like this year, the word that will likely come to mind is "pain." With viruses, worms, spyware, spam and phishing, running a computer -- especially one with Windows -- has often been a colossal headache.
Most Windows users could be excused for feeling they were never more than a few clicks away from an online mugging. In 2004, they operated in a strikingly different universe than people using computers running Mac OS X or Linux, who experienced an Internet blissfully devoid of malware.
Windows users did gain one decent remedy this year -- switching from Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to Mozilla Firefox, released in November as a free download for Windows as well as Mac OS X and Linux (www.mozilla.org). Firefox is safer to use because it lacks IE's support for ActiveX Web programs (commonly used to hijack browsers) while adding defenses against "phishing" identity-theft scams.
Firefox also offers the same high-end capabilities as other IE competitors (for instance, a tabbed browsing feature to allow switching among multiple Web pages in a single window), but remains easy to use for beginners. That has allowed Firefox, unlike earlier would-be rivals, to chip away at IE's market share.
Microsoft's own answer to the Internet security mess came in August with the release of the massive Service Pack 2 update for Windows XP. This free patch (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/sp2/) closes numerous holes in XP, even at the cost of removing some features -- an unprecedented but welcome shift in Microsoft's priorities.
But two things are wrong in SP2. First, it doesn't help users of older Windows systems. Second, this upgrade turned out on rare occasions to fail catastrophically.
Most SP2 installations proceed satisfactorily -- including all those I've conducted from August up to Thanksgiving, when I (cautiously!) applied SP2 to my in-laws' computer. Problems generally seem confined to PCs with spyware infections or other hidden ailments -- preexisting conditions that could incapacitate Windows on their own. But can you blame people for feeling leery if they've heard enough stories of SP2 gone amok?
Elsewhere in the computer business, Apple continued to refine its vision of multimedia integration. Its iTunes Music Store owns the market for legal downloads, going from 30 million downloads in January to 200 million by mid-December. Its iTunes media-playing software won so many users that Hewlett-Packard chose to bundle it with its own Windows-based PCs. (This competitive pressure suggests why Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 10 and MSN Music store turned out as well as they did.) And the iPod is driving other MP3 players to the brink of irrelevancy.
For now, Apple is running the table in the digital-music business. But I'm not sure its tight control over its music store's format will work in the long run when Microsoft allows other firms to sell songs as Windows Media files -- and welcomes manufacturers that want to build devices to play those files.
Apple's own computers have yet to share in the explosive growth of its digital-music ventures, despite its unchallenged leadership in hardware design -- you won't find a more artful, refined desktop than the iMac G5's. (Only Sony and such niche PC manufacturers as Shuttle put a comparable effort into crafting their hardware.)