January 23, 2005

USERS? WHAT A CONCEPT:

Filter's Farewell (Cynthia L. Webb, January 21, 2005, Washington Post)

If the 1990s marked the Wild West era of the Internet, the first half of the first decade of the new century has been the opposite. Tech firms are now focused not just on launching at all costs, but on building products and offering services that people will actually buy.

Take for example the search engine race, which has heated up since last year, led by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. These search engine rivals are figuring out how to cash in on the growing craze for services to sift through data and to bring customized content and advertising dollars to their portals. Search engine news was ho-hum in 2002, but now it is a hotbed of activity. That's a welcome change. America Online, trying to boost its tarnished image from financial scandals and lackluster subscriber numbers, is playing the search game too, sprucing up its search services in plans announced yesterday and joining the desktop search bandwagon. I half expect Apple to be the next to dip its toe into the search engine waters.

And in a throwback to the heady days of the 1990s, when Microsoft was embroiled in a brutal browser war with Netscape Communications (which it ultimately won, with Netscape getting folded into America Online's empire), the browser battle is taking center stage again. Microsoft's popular Internet Explorer has a formidable competitor -- the free open-source Web browser Firefox. While Firefox has just barely managed to dent IE's market share so far, it's still an example of the increasing appeal of open-source software and the long-term threat it could pose to proprietary software firms like Microsoft.

As the Internet has grown up, the amount of content that PC users have to command has become a virtual jungle of information. Going forward, some of the most important innovations and business strategies will involve data mining, managing digital content and the ever-tricky balance of copyright protection, while striving to provide a wealth of information to the masses. Lawmakers, for their part, are introducing legislation at the state and federal levels to try and establish digital content rules and these efforts face a lot of hurdles. Tech companies such as IBM and Microsoft and smaller start-ups are involved in this quest to help organize and link information. The evolution of the Information Age has taught us, however, that consumer privacy concerns are one of the biggest challenges facing this development.

Digital entertainment is another noteworthy trend that could transform how we watch TV and listen to music in the future. While Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Dell and other computer electronics companies have been trotting out their plans for all-in-one PCs that can double as a TV, stereo and game machine, we haven't seen this concept take off yet. This is starting to change, as consumers become more interested in multi-tasking gadgets and as digital music and watching movies downloaded from the 'Net have continued to soar in popularity.

Consumers are embracing the idea more than ever of having one machine to serve up music, pictures, e-mail, data and manage everything from home finances, TiVo recordings and even a home security system. Falling prices will help spur this technology further. What used to be Ray Bradbury-like fictionalized hopes about smart homes with a central brain powering everything from lights and alarms to coffee brewing and cooking are starting to become more of a reality. There's a long way to go before a computerized house makes sense (or is cost effective enough to bother). But it will at least be fun to watch the digital products and services that roll out to meet the increased need for people to be wired to information all the time.


Nothing ever gets more expensive anymore.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 5:06 PM
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