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2001 – The Year Online

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 21, 2001
(Issue 1951, The Future of Technology)

Every year since the first computer network was created 26 years ago has brought technological advances in networking – as well as new questions about how to use that technology. 2001 was no exception.

There were no real technological breakthroughs hitting the consumer retail market this year in the online arena – but there were plenty of changes in the political, social and legal arenas.

Broadband collapse

The biggest business story about the Internet this year was the seemingly sudden collapse of the residential broadband market.

It was only a year ago that hooking homes up to the Internet was touted as an unstoppable growth industry. For most of the late '90s, the cable TV industry had residential broadband to itself, with the telephone companies only able to counter with the overpriced and underperforming (128Kbps) ISDN.

But as the decade closed, the advance of DSL technology brought telephone lines close to par with cable lines. Suddenly, the cable companies had competition from both the phone company and local Internet service providers (ISPs) that contracted with the phone companies to provide DSL service.

As 2001 unfolded, home Internet users had a variety of options for high-speed Internet access. This growth in broadband residential access had a ripple effect across the digital economy - online gaming increased in popularity, and Napster and other musical download technologies exploded in usage.

But then NorthPoint DSL went bankrupt, leaving tens of thousands of customers high and dry. Soon, other national DSL providers were in trouble, pretty much leaving the market to the Baby Bells. Oh well, least we had the cable company to provide some competition, right?

Except that the cable TV companies didn't actually provide the Internet connection – they contracted with someone who hooked their system up to the Internet backbone – and a good majority of those connections went through the @Home service, later bought by Excite.

As 2001 closes, Excite@Home is bankrupt and shutting down service across the country – leaving hundreds of thousands of home subscribers without a connection.

Suddenly, that slow, 28.8Kbps connection from AOL doesn't look so bad ...

The Internet as news outlet

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks tragically illustrated the value of the Internet as a medium for distributing the news.

The ongoing nature of that story served to illuminate the drawbacks of traditional news reporting – print and broadcast – as compared to the online outlets.

The newspapers were perpetually out of date in their coverage. By the time they hit the street, the news from New York and Washington (and, now, Afghanistan) was already eight hours old. Internet sites, of course, can be updated continuously, providing news just as current as that on the major TV and radio networks.

Of course, the TV and radio networks have to report on something, just to fill air time. So even if there is nothing new to report, they're there reporting anyway. Online news sites, on the other hand, only update when there's something new to report.

This combination of timeliness and viewer control (i.e., not having to listen to a repeated report) is leading more and more of us to turn to online resources for our news.

It's even leading many universities with journalism programs to add online journalism to their curricula – including Point Loma Nazarene University, where your faithful correspondent will be teaching the Electronic Journalism course a second time this spring.

The (Microsoft) Empire Strikes Back

Unlike in the movies, in real life the good guys don't always win.

Such is the story with Microsoft and the Internet ... at least so far.

After losing at trial and on appeal for its predatory business practices, Microsoft won in the political arena when the pro-business Bush administration dropped its antitrust case against Microsoft.

With its new Windows XP operating system, Microsoft is moving to tighten its grip over the online onramp, using its control of the personal computer operating system market to steer customers to Microsoft's online subsidiaries or those businesses who have paid handsomely for the privilege.

Unless the states still fighting Microsoft, or the European Union – which seems to take a dimmer view of coercive business practices – can win, 2002 would seem to promise even more abusive behavior from Darth Gates and his empire.