This is the year the Internet officially stopped being fun. The festering problems of spam, spyware, viruses, worms and pop-ups boiled over, making the online experience merely annoying at best, financially and emotionally destructive at worst.
Users of Microsoft Windows found themselves in the bull's-eye — years of inattention to security issues in Redmond, Wash., left them exposed to the Blaster worm, the Sobig virus, Messenger Service pop-ups, spyware infestations and worse, while Mac and Linux users missed out on all the "fun."
Microsoft seems to have taken the hint and is developing a promising update to Windows XP that will fix long-standing flaws in its firewall, network and browser settings, but don't expect to see it before next summer.
In the meantime, it has fallen to other developers to pick up the slack.
Sick of spyware? Download AdAware (www.lavasoftusa.com) or Spybot Search and Destroy (www.spybot.info). Need a firewall? Download the free ZoneAlarm (www.zonelabs.com). Tired of pop-up ads? Install the Google Toolbar add-on for Internet Explorer — or switch to such competing browsers as Mozilla and Mozilla Firebird, which block pop-ups and offer tabbed browsing, possibly the greatest advance in Web software since the bookmarks menu.
Unfortunately, no developer has found a bulletproof solution for spam. Filtering has improved a great deal — for instance, the new mail-management features in Microsoft's Outlook 2003 made it the company's most welcome software release this year — and challenge-response systems can eliminate spam completely for users whose e-mail usage fits the right pattern. But the best defense against spam remains keeping your e-mail address as obscure as possible.
Fortunately, not every software developer on the Internet was tied down playing defense all year. In April, Apple opened the iTunes Music Store, whose 99-cents-a-song pricing and liberal usage rights could only have been considered revolutionary in the perverse context of earlier, lamer attempts.
Competing services began selling songs under similar terms in the fall, about the same time Apple brought iTunes to Windows users — but by then, the Cupertino, Calif., company had secured a commanding lead, allowing it to sell its 25 millionth song on Dec. 15.
The iTunes, Musicmatch and Napster stores, if they continue to expand their inventory, may wind up doing far more to stop MP3 file-swapping than all the lawsuits the Recording Industry Association of America files against MP3 file sharers.
When they thank the operators of these stores, the record labels can also thank the broadband Internet providers that successfully rolled out fast Internet connections — via cable, digital subscriber line and, for a small but significant number of users, WiFi wireless — to millions of new users.
Three other trends online didn't get much ink in the non-technical press this year, but I suspect they will soon earn their share of headlines: RSS ("Really Simple Syndication"), a simple way to get the latest news automatically from a huge variety of Web sites; free audio and video chat via instant-messaging programs; and such telephone-replacement "voice over Internet protocol" services as Vonage.
The year's best major operating-system update was also the year's only major operating-system update (a just-released revision to the core of Linux won't make its way into most distributions of this open-source system until next year). Apple's Panther edition of Mac OS X added a terrific window-management option, Expose, faster performance and impressive stability: It has crashed twice in all the testing I've put it through since October.
If only desktop and laptop computers had seen anything half as exciting happen! No new shapes or sizes of personal computer emerged this year. Cheaper and faster machines are still worth a little celebration, along with the death of bulky, heavy, inefficient CRT monitor, but is there really no room left for creativity in this business?
Maybe it's been diverted to the gadgets that plug into PCs — handheld organizers, MP3 players, cell phones and digital cameras (or, in the case of the Treo 600, devices that combine all four functions into one impossibly small body). These peripherals steadily got cheaper, smarter and smaller.
The "cameraphone" boom was the biggest surprise of the year for me, but it does make sense — a cell phone is the one device you're most likely to have with you all the time, so why not add a cheap digital camera to it, just in case?
Meanwhile, the more-hyped phone feature of Bluetooth wireless remained in a state of limbo not much better than that suffered by consumers trying to switch their service from one company to another. (Half of the big six carriers still don't offer any Bluetooth phones.)
Digital television is on the verge of a legitimate boom, but there's still an appalling degree of uncertainty over what sort of flexibility we'll have to record digital TV shows. The answer seems to depend on whom you ask, and what time of day you ask them.
That brings me to one of my recurring complaints: The innovation that drives the computing and electronics industries is directly threatened by the continued expansion and abuse of the patent and copyright laws.
When an obscure Utah software firm can claim that it owns part of the Linux operating system and demand royalty payments (without offering public proof!), when Microsoft must redesign its Web browser because a programmer got a patent for an obvious way to add multimedia to Web pages, and when manufacturers of things ranging from printer cartridges to garage-door openers get sued under the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, no developer or consumer can be safe. Is that the future we want to live in?