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Hot on the Web

A look back at 2004

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 31, 2004
(Issue 2252, Digging Up Dirt)

The end of the year is always a fun time to look back at the previous 12 months and see how the online landscape has changed. Internet time remains remarkably accelerated compared to normal time, and the last year was simply another manifestation of this time warp.

Among the most noticeable changes was in the area of free webmail accounts. The arrival of Google's still-in-beta Gmail has shaken up the webmail arena like nothing before, even though as this is written (first week of December) Gmail still hasn't launched to the general public.

With its 1 gigabyte of free storage in a market niche where 10 megabytes had been the norm, Gmail has suddenly made free-to-the-user, advertising-driven webmail a realistic alternative to standard downloadable e-mail accounts.

And it's forced the existing market leaders – Yahoo!, Hotmail and Netscape – to alter their business practices.

Yahoo! was first to counter Gmail's arrival by upping its free Yahoo! mail accounts from 10MB to 100MB over the summer, and then 250MB in the fall. Yahoo! also now offers a subscription plan that gives you up to 2GB of storage.

Microsoft's Hotmail resisted any change at first, but by the fall had also increased its free account storage to 250MB – for the same $20 annual fee Yahoo! charges, you get the same 2GB of storage. Netscape, too, was slow to follow Yahoo's lead, but by late fall had upped its free webmail accounts to 250MB. There doesn't seem to be any premiere subscription plan from Netscape, though.

Anti-spam backlash

2004 was also the year that the federal and state governments finally began cracking down on spammers. New laws allow Internet providers and others to sue those who send spam – and AOL, Microsoft and some other heavy players have been seeking substantial damages for the use of their networks by spammers.

In addition, there were several high-profile criminal prosecutions for spam this year.

Spam hasn't noticeably slowed as of yet, but it also took awhile before new laws brought about a lessening of junk faxes a decade ago.

Software tools to fight spam and viruses also improved greatly this year, with new products designed to prevent spyware, adware and other malicious code from installing itself to your hard drive without your knowledge.

The war between the scumbags and the rest of us continues, but for now, technology seems to be favoring those of us who want to keep other people out of our computers.

A local note

Here in San Diego County, two prominent local ISPs were back in the news.

CTSnet was sold once again. Having been founded by Bill Blue back in the 1980s as a dial-up bulletin board system, CTS was originally sold to After a series of bankruptcy sales, CTS is now owned by Concentric – another hosting company that's been reorganized several times.

More interestingly, the North County Times has gotten out of the ISP business. Back in the late 1990s, the Times began offering a combined newspaper/Internet subscription plan similar to what the Riverside Press-Enterprise had done a few years earlier.

But the marketplace has changed, and the NCT has sold its ISP business to PeoplePC, a division of EarthLink. While there is certainly still a synergy between news operations and the Internet, providing an Internet connection may not be the future model for newspapers and the 'Net.