It's been 365 days of dropped connections, interrupted downloads, error messages, crossed wires and system crashes for the computer and consumer-electronics industries. But in the midst of all this, companies and people occasionally managed to put out better products and do the right thing for consumers.
To start with the most obvious change, visually speaking, fashion arrived in home computers. Apple sold millions of iMacs in different colors, spurring other peripheral and computer manufacturers to join in the fun. Not all of the results have been particularly tasteful, but on balance it is a positive development for the industry. It means that computers are being treated as a normal product for normal people: Like a cordless phone or a car or a mountain bike, look and feel matters, and you can't just sell with box specifications alone.
Once you got that newly stylish computer home, you had two new choices to make when it came to Internet access: free, or fast? Ad-subsidized Internet access took over a sizable chunk of the market in 1999; several million people found that the non-stop ad windows these services parked on their screens could be ignored easily enough. The low-grade service and inept tech support of some freebie providers, however, could prove harder to overlook.
If, on the other hand, you didn't mind paying a little more for faster Internet access, you finally could. Local cable operators, from Frederick to Fairfax, launched or expanded high-speed cable-modem services that, for customers lucky enough to live in upgraded neighborhoods, offered download speeds approaching three million bits per second. Meanwhile, Bell Atlantic and Covad made digital subscriber line connections widely available, offering access from seven to 12 times faster than a modem for not much more than the cost of a regular Internet account and a second phone line. But none of the big, name-brand, nationwide Internet providers--America Online, CompuServe, MSN, Mindspring, Earthlink, AT&T WorldNet and Prodigy--offered any high-speed option to their customers here.
This trend towards always-on Internet access--combined with the baby steps towards wireless Internet access that Sprint PCS and Bell Atlantic took--are transforming the Net from a place to visit to a constant of human existence, like oxygen or Beltway traffic. It will just be there all the time, waiting to deliver whatever information or entertainment we request.
Moving from your house to the courthouse, in November Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson hammered Microsoft in his "findings of fact" for the government's antitrust case. But his stark evidence of Microsoft's gratuitous abuses of power had little impact on everyday users' computing experiences. The more significant defeat for Microsoft came in stores, where Palm handheld organizers continued to outsell handhelds based on Microsoft's (over-engineered, clumsy) Windows CE operating system by a margin of more than three to one.
On the consumer-electronics front, this year saw DVD continue its conquest of American homes, with Circuit City finally giving up on its pay-per-view Divx mutation of DVD this fall. And a new, related home-theater abbreviation debuted this spring: PVR, for personal video recorder. These set-top boxes, developed by startup firms TiVo and ReplayTV, let you pause, rewind and store live TV in digital clarity. Using a VCR after test-driving a TiVo or Replay box is simply painful; I think that DVD and PVR will spell out doom for VHS in the next year or two.
But the expected boom in digital music sales never happened. The music business failed to finalize a scheme to enable copyright-protected distribution of digital copies of songs. Independent labels and musicians, not to mention millions of music listeners, showed little interest in waiting for the technologists behind the recording industry's Secure Digital Music Initiative to get their act together and instead made the unprotected MP3 standard more popular than ever.
Another, more disappointing flameout: High-profile mergers and acquisitions in the telecommunictions business continued to mean nothing to home consumers, despite repeated promises of more competition and, eventually, lower prices. Choice in local-phone and cable-TV service has yet to appear in most parts of the D.C. area; the only real competition has come from out of thin air, in the form of the area's five wireless-phone services and two satellite-TV broadcasters, DirecTV and Dish Network.
The future, as ever, is hard to predict, but one thing seems certain: All these new wires and boxes in the living room suggest a future in which all the entertainment and information coming into the home will be digital. Text and recorded music and movies are already there, TV is on its way and radio is set to go digital in the coming years as well. This could mean more choices in programming, better video and audio quality and more interactivity. It's also likely to mean more of those error messages, crossed wires and system crashes.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.