About this time last year, I wrote a column following up on some pieces I'd written earlier to see what if anything new had happened to those topics. The reaction I heard afterwards convinced me that revisiting old news was a worthwhile exercise -- in general, it's too easy for tech reporters to lose sight of how a product works over time in the real world, as opposed to a brief trial in a reviewer's hands.
Price cuts, bug fixes, maintenance upgrades and better or worse marketing all change how a piece of hardware or software fares in the market. How did those factors affect the things I've covered in the past year?
The first of multiple columns about digital music that I've done over the past 12 months came only a few weeks after last August's looking-back piece. This feels like the story of this year, and maybe next. The fact that most non-Apple music-download stores have done badly doesn't seem to have dimmed anybody's enthusiasm for the concept -- just last week, Microsoft rolled out its own site.
But as all these competitors have jumped into the market, I'm puzzled why so few of them have tried to compete on price. The going rate for a single song has stayed stuck at 99 cents (except for Wal-Mart's 88 cents and RealNetworks' promotional price of 49 cents). Even within individual stores, price competition is absent; I suspect that independent record labels, unburdened by the major labels' high marketing budgets, can make money at a lower price, but they're not allowed to exercise that competitive advantage in these stores.
Hardware and software compatibility has remained a weak point. If you like the iPod, as so many people do, Apple's iTunes store will work well -- but if you own a second device capable of playing digital music, you're out of luck unless you go through the tedious workaround of burning your purchases to audio CD, then copying them back to a computer as MP3s. Songs bought off other online stores, meanwhile, generally can't be played on an iPod without the same workaround.
I appreciate the way Real has tried to fix the second issue by writing its own iPod-compatible software, but I also wish this company would heed its own advocacy of openness and compatibility -- and make its own store work in Mac OS X and Linux.
I've seen more progress on a related front -- letting people play music stored on their computer through their stereo, without needing to burn all those tracks to audio CDs. Wireless media receivers plug into a stereo and communicate with a computer using WiFi radio signals. By this summer, I'd found two of these gadgets that I liked, SlimDevices' Squeezebox ($279) and Apple's AirPort Express ($130). Since then, SlimDevices has updated the Squeezebox with a sharper display. And I've found a third media receiver I like -- Roku's SoundBridge M1000 ($250), which provides iTunes users one of the simplest setups of all.
This slim cylinder instantly found my wireless network and two computers' iTunes libraries without my needing to install any software -- it relies on iTunes' existing music-sharing feature. The SoundBridge didn't suffer any dropouts in a few days of testing; unfortunately, it can't play iTunes Music Store downloads, because Apple has yet to grant Roku the required license. Don't hold your breath.
This year's big trend on the Web has boomed precisely because no one company can be its gatekeeper. Last September, I wrote that RSS (short for "Really Simple Syndication," a way for your computer to check for updates to your favorite sites), deserved more attention, and for once my timing was right. Within months, such mass-market sites as The Post and the New York Times came out with their own RSS feeds, while developers of Web browsers began adding RSS support instead of making users run separate "newsreader" programs. The Opera browser already includes its own RSS interface, as will future versions of Mozilla Firefox and Apple's Safari.
Voice over Internet Protocol phone service, which uses the Internet to send and receive phone calls, is in an even bigger boom. Since my July review of three such services, the market has only heated up; AT&T, for example, is throwing serious dollars into marketing its CallVantage service, including prime-time TV ads. Many VoIP users have also tipped me off to additional services that I did not review (for example, McLean-based Primus Telecommunications Group's Lingo includes flat-rate long-distance calling to Western Europe as well as North America).
But for all this excitement, the two biggest cable operators in this area, Comcast and Cox, have yet to offer any VoIP service of their own, even though that seems like an obvious feature for them to sell to their broadband customers.
And last, there's Microsoft's Service Pack 2 security update to Windows XP, which I termed "a must" in my August review. For most people, the release seems to have worked fine. But in a few cases, it has failed badly and left users -- one of whom works 15 feet from my desk here -- with catatonic computers.
After reading through dozens of reader reports, I don't think SP2 has any fatal flaw. (So far this week, 52 people have said SP2 worked fine, 20 had conflicts with programs, and five lost data or had to reload Windows.)
SP2 does, however, seem more sensitive than other system updates to existing Windows problems, such as a corrupted system registry file. But in that case, doing nothing won't guarantee you a healthy PC either -- setting aside the real security benefits of SP2. All you can do is back up your data, start this update and hope for the best.
There's more to be written here; look for a more detailed report on users' experiences with SP2 on this page next week.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.