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Year-End Rapp Up

 

2006 saw the tech world party like it was 1999. After a number of dark years, suddenly the news services were ablaze with new products, services, “strategic partnerships,” and many of these things appeared to have at least a fighting chance of surviving, unlike the madness that prevailed during the first dot-com boom-bust. I still have an old bumpersticker that reads idon’twanttobuytoothpasteonline.com.

With powerhouse computers, massive storage, and broadband connections within the reach of almost everybody, the world seems to be pouring itself into the Internet, and there’s plenty of winners and losers in this strange new world where everything is at-stake and uncertain, where fortunes are made and lost by invisible movements of micro-digicash and pure speculation about the value of eyeballs, and where people are more inclined to repeatedly watch Mentos-Coca-Cola geysers on YouTube than actually sit down and read a book.

Sony is sure not looking good right about now. First the company got caught putting viruses on its music CDs that gummed up its customers’ computers, and then it had to replace millions of laptop batteries because its old ones had a disturbing habit of catching on fire. Toward the end of the year I was reading some analysts saying that Sony’s future was riding on the success or failure of its new PlayStation gaming console, which struck me as remarkable. For one thing, if the entire universe of video games simply vaporized right now, my life wouldn’t change one iota. I wouldn’t even notice. On top of that, I think the world would be a much better place if video games didn’t exist, once the hordes of pimply-faced suburban boys figure out something productive to do on sunny afternoons and with their parents’ money. In any event, the fact that anyone would even think that a massive corporation like Sony will rise and fall on the basis of inanities like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Final Fantasy” shows just how frail and decrepit the company has become.

And it looks like Sony’s losing the gaming fight big-time. Coming off the holiday season, the clear winner appears to be Nintendo’s Wii system, followed by Microsoft’s Xbox, with Sony’s new PS3 platform a fairly distant third. And it turns out Sony had created a fake blog written by a fake hip-hop teenager who wanted to help convince his fake friend’s fake parents to buy him a new $600 PlayStation! And the fake blogger could help you persuade your parents, too!!! This idiotic exercise in fraud was uncovered pretty quickly, resulting in Sony looking like not just a loser, but a big, lying, deceitful loser.

Microsoft also seems to have trouble getting out of its own way. With its ridiculous Zune MP3 player logging in this week as something like the 19th-most-popular MP3 player on the market, Microsoft decided to try to hip itself up in the blogosphere and to hype its new Vista operating system. Microsoft quietly sent 90 tech bloggers free hot-rodded Ferrari-branded $2500 laptops with Vista installed. Well, it was quiet till the machines showed up. Many of the recipients, not particularly big Microsoft fans to begin with, started screaming bloody murder that their views and opinions weren’t for sale, at least not for a $2500 laptop. Non-recipient bloggers, feeling neglected and rejected, wailed inconsolably that A) they didn’t get a free laptop, which sucks, and B) even if they had, their views wouldn’t have been for sale either. (The whole episode raised interesting questions about bloggers, journalism, and ethics that we’ll let slide for right now.) Microsoft sheepishly first said that it was providing “evaluation” machines that it wanted returned, then reversed course and said no, they were “gifts” for which Microsoft, like any good K Street lobbyist, didn’t want or expect anything in return. Um-hmm . . .

And Apple’s had a rough couple of weeks, too. First an investigation showed that some Apple executives had been playing cute with post-dated stock options. Steve Jobs, the only Apple exec that matters, hasn’t gotten any stink on himself, though. Yet. Meantime, a federal judge has refused to dismiss a private anti-trust lawsuit against Apple, claiming that Apple’s tying of its iPods to the proprietary iTunes music format is an illegal restraint of trade. And given that Apple controls something north of 80 percent of the market, for gizmos and digital music respectively, there may well be something there.

And then there’s DRM, the gooey code the labels and digital music stores stick on digital music so you can’t copy it. People are getting sick of DRM, and little by little, labels are allowing music to be sold without it, and are finding out that the world does not end as a result. Yahoo’s music store has been allowed to sell a number of unencumbered MP3s, and word has it that Amazon is hammering the labels to allow it to sell DRM-free, iPod-compatible music, and is staying out of the market until this happens. Which would bust the music market, finally, wide open.

—Paul C. Rapp


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