2006: The Year in Tech

Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, January 2, 2007; 8:24 AM

Are you happy 2006 is over with? If you're Microsoft, movie studios or most PC manufacturers, you probably are. But if you're Google, Apple or YouTube, you'd be forgiven for looking back on the last 12 months with a certain amount of nostalgia.

In Sunday's column, I took a look at the last 12 months' worth of technology news and tried to see what sort of themes surfaced in retrospect--how some of these individual developments fit into larger patterns.

Read the column: "Innovators Were the Big Winners in 2006."

In Help File, meanwhile, I addressed a perennial topic: What am I supposed to do with that crummy old computer I just retired? (Hint: Don't toss it in the trash.)

AT&T = Cingular = AT&T

"AT&T" announced on Friday that its proposed acquisition of BellSouth had finally been approved by the Federal Communications Commission. (I put the name in quotes because the firm using this corporate moniker has so little to do with the original American Telephone and Telegraph Company.)

I was particularly interested to see that Cingular--the wireless carrier jointly owned by AT&T and BellSouth, and which had only recently spent vast sums of money to buy AT&T Wireless and then retire that name--will now go back to using the AT&T brand.

Not only does that represent a colossal waste of time and money for Cingular, it also risks reminding people of the old AT&T Wireless. This was probably the least-liked carrier in America by the time Cingular put it out of its misery--botched billing, poor service, lousy coverage and other offenses had made it eminently death-worthy.

True story: My sister-in-law spent weeks on the phone with AT&T Wireless tech support trying to "port over" her wireless number. The catch is, she was trying to move the number *to* AT&T! (And Laura had plenty of company in her misery.)

Yup, that's the AT&T Wireless we all remember so fondly. And now--just like a villain in a horror movie--it's baaack!

Rip Rap

Last year, I finished two massive computing tasks--things I'd meant to tackle before but had kept putting off. One was changing the work e-mail address I'd used since 1995.

The other was copying my CDs to my computer. All of them. This turned out to be a lot less work than I'd feared--and completely worth the time it did require. Here's how it went.

My first decision was what format to use. The iTunes default--AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) at a "bit rate" of 128 kbps--would work fine on an iPod, but I worried a little that I'd hear some compression artifacts on good speakers. And I worried a lot that I wouldn't be able to play these AAC files on some of the hardware I might happen to use.

So MP3 it was, but I opted to trade disk space, something that gets cheaper every year, for better fidelity: "variable bit rate" encoding of around 160 kbps, with a "high" quality setting.

(To change the import formats in iTunes, go to the iTunes menu in Mac OS X or the Edit menu in Windows, then select Preferences. In the Preferences window, click the Advanced tab, then the Importing tab.)

The other iTunes setting I changed (in the same dialog box as above) was to have the program automatically import a CD when I inserted it, then eject it when finished.

This way, I could sit in front of the computer and do almost anything else--read, talk on the phone, answer my e-mail--while mindlessly feeding CDs into the computer and setting them aside once iTunes had ripped each one.

I only ran into a few hiccups, in the form of CDs that iTunes spat out of the computer, crashed while importing or would only import some songs from. Cleaning some of these CDs worked, but in other cases I had to try another computer or another program to get the job done. It was weird; I'd never run into that problem before, but I'd also never fed a few hundred discs into a computer before.

On other occasions, the hesitation came from me, as I paused in front of the computer and thought "Do I actually need to keep this thing around?" Sometimes, the answer was "no"--so now I have a small pile of CDs to take to the used-CD store.

As the iTunes library grew, the "Show Duplicates" command in iTunes (under the View menu) served to demonstrate how many times I've bought the same song on multiple CDs. News flash: Those greatest-hits compilations are not always the best value if you've bought anything else from the same artist.

After a couple of weeks of this merry little routine, I was done, with about 27 gigabytes' worth of music accumulated on the hard drive. The collection may grow a little; there are some mix CDs floating around the living room, and if I get really bored I'll finally remember to record a few old cassette tapes on my computer.

But in the meantime, I can launch myself into a far more prolonged endeavor, rating each song in this library on a scale of one to five stars. Having to make these value judgments has caused me to rethink my opinion of some beloved songs. I think I'm going to have a much deeper sense of my own taste in music at the end of this exercise.

But first I've got a lot of MP3s to rate. I can do this easy enough in iTunes (click in the "My Rating" column) and on my iPod (from the regular now-playing screen, press the center button three times, then spin the click-wheel dial to add or take away stars). But the other day, as I listened to a CD in my car, I realized that the song blasting through the speakers deserved a five-star rating ... and I instantly regretted that I couldn't assign that rave from the driver's seat.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company