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Looking ahead to a new year, online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 19, 2003
(Issue 2151, Ask Madam Sylvia)

A few weeks back, we looked at what some of the upcoming technological changes are likely to be on the Internet – secure e-mail, multimedia content, and that sort of thing.

This issue, though, is devoted to looking ahead – and what is always more interesting than the technology is what we humans do with it.

From that perspective, there are likely to be several key fronts on the Internet in 2004.

Online music and movies

The entertainment industry spent most of 2003 attacking, intimidating and finally suing its customer base. With the latest economic forecasts predicting that music sales will continue to decline in 2004 before (possibly) picking up in 2005, Hollywood is going to have to stop avoiding the reality of the Internet and begin a serious attempt to adapt to the changing marketplace.

Music sharing is here to stay – has been since the advent of the first reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1940s. Cassette tapes, digital audio tape (DAT) and burnable CD- and DVD-ROMs have only further entrenched the practice in society, and the Internet has expanded the practice from music to movies.

In 2004, it's likely that the music labels and movie studios are going to be confronted with the cold, hard fact that they can't stop the sharing of their products – online Continuing to wage war against its own customers is not going to improve the bottom line – it's only going to alienate those most likely to purchase their products, and harden public support for those who share files.

Given the remarkably quick public adoption of the Apple iTunes online music-purchasing system, look for the entertainment industry to emulate that success. Already, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America is predicting online sales of digital movie releases will become a reality within a few years - where you will download the movie immediately rather than waiting for a DVD or VHS tape to be shipped to your house.

A successful online sales model is going to do the industry far more good than trying to sue everyone who shares a song or movie online.

Anti-spam legislation

As 2003 comes to a close, Congress is debating a new law to ban unsolicited e-mails – much as it did with unsolicited faxes a decade ago.

What form that will take in its final version isn't clear as this is written, but Congress is sensitive to concerns from business leaders already searching for new ways to generate sales leads in the wake of the Do Not Call list, which restricts telemarketing.

Still, public disgust and frustration with all the body-enhancement, porn and pyramid scheme e-mails clogging up not only our in-boxes but the very bandwidth of the Internet make it likely that in 2004, Congress will pass some sort of law limiting the use of spam and setting significant penalties for those who defy those limits.

At the same time, the coming year will also see more movement toward a new e-mail system for the entire Internet that will provide more security and protection from spam. While it's hard to imagine such a profound systemic change being completed or even agreed upon in 2004, by this time next year you should be able to expect some substantial progress from the standards-setting bodies on a broad outline for a new, secure e-mail system that will make it harder for the spammers to reach your account.

Windows security flaws

In 2004, as in every year since the Internet went public in 1991, one of the prevailing stories about the Internet was how many different ways hackers found to break into Windows computers on the Internet.

Whether Windows is truly less secure than other operating systems (such as Unix and its related systems like Linux, Solaris and Mac OS-X) or simply targeted more often by malicious programmers with more time and skill than sense, we'll probably never know.

But the point remains that given Microsoft's ubiquitous presence in the market, the continuing ability of hackers to penetrate Windows' defensive systems is not only troubling, but monumentally expensive.

Microsoft is probably too powerful for the government to move against it, although the European Union is showing more stomach for taking on the behemoth.

But lawsuits from private citizens against Microsoft in response to the security flaws seemingly inherent in Windows have been gaining steam, and the economic threat from a rash of class-action lawsuits ought to be enough so that the security tools in the next generation of Windows – already in full development at Microsoft – will receive as much attention from the company as the marketing and p.r. campaigns that will surely accompany its launch in 2004 or 2005.

That alone would be a first for Microsoft since Bill Gates hand-wrote the code for Microsoft BASIC for the Altair in 1975.