Your 15 Minutes Are Up, Mr. Gates
JANUARY 11, 1999:
TOP NINE CYBER STORIES
by Jon Lebkowsky
1998 was a watershed year for computing in general and for the Internet in particular.
Computers were truly acknowledged as household fixtures alongside television and
telephones. Research conducted by Ovum (http://www.ovum.com), according to CyberAtlas
(http://www.cyberatlas.com), "has predicted that the number of people with Internet access worldwide will quadruple by 2005. ... The market research company forecasts 206 million dial-up connections and 17.5 million permanent connections in the year 2005." The report predicts that "the U.S. Internet market will reach its saturation point by 2002." Most of the big stories in 1998 are about players dancing around positions that will set the foundation for the next century.
1. Austin became a prominent high-tech center. Speculation that this would
happen fueled the boom here in the Eighties, which fell apart when the Texas economy
was blown by a drop in oil prices and other more complicated stuff. A high-tech recession
didn't help. However, Austin continued to be an attractive business zone, and several
technology companies hung in and eventually thrived, especially Dell, which has been
phenomenally successful in the Nineties. In its November 23 issue, Fortune
called Austin the number one best city for business, and cited Dell as "the
region's largest private employer." Austin's reputation as a hotbed of Internet
action promises to pay off, too, as Net-based industries begin to thrive, such as
Deja News, Acuity, Hoover's, etc. So we all got jobs, but getting to 'em through
snarly traffic is the trick.
2. The Internet became a full-fledged industry. The sense of experimentation
waned and the real business was under way, with millions of dollars changing hands
even though the economic viability of Internet business models remained unproven.
Optimism and a sense of destiny erased any remaining doubts, and the fringe aspects
of Net culture gave way to a long-predicted mainstreaming effect.
3. E-commerce arrives in a big way. Consumer online commerce was finally
acknowledged as a winning business model as Net-based stores like Amazon and E-Toys
were gearing up for the holiday season. Existing companies (Toys R Us, Wal-Mart,
The Gap) created shopping sites that showed promise, and carriers like Federal Express
and United Parcel Service were seeing the impact of increased shipments resulting
from online orders. People were going nuts over auction sites like Ebay, where you
could still find a dadgum Furby as Christmas approached, though at something like
five times its original selling price. E-commerce rode in with portalmania, in which
big money was poured into the development of "portals," sites that become
daily points of reference for millions of users. These sites are built around major
indexes (like Yahoo) or search engines (like Excite). Netscape, in its struggle to
account for lost browser market share, remade its Netcenter as a portal. Why are
portals such a big deal? The best old media analogy is the television Network. If
you think television Networks exist to create programming, you're confusing the means
with the end. They exist to attract consumer attention, which they sell to advertisers.
Portals are pretty much the same model, and if they have a shortcoming, it's one
that's plagued cable-era Networks as well: how to sustain consumer loyalty in a field
where there are so many choices, and how to convince advertisers that consumers are
really paying attention to ads. Though the effectiveness of portals is unproven,
some advertisers were willing to pay in the six or seven figures for exclusive arrangements
with prominent portals like Yahoo and America Online.
4. With the Clinton scandal, the Internet arrives as multimedia news channel.
When Bill Clinton's videotaped deposition was made public, the real news was that
it would be "released on the Internet"; ditto the voluminous Ken Starr
report. Nobody made much of other distribution channels. The Clinton video was simultaneously
aired on the telly, but enough folks were watching the 2" x 1.5" RealAudio
of the prez to strain global servers and bandwidth. By the end of the day, when digests
of the deposition were telecast, many viewers had half-seen and half-heard the whole
testimony while at work. The text of the Starr report was rushed into paperback within
a few days of its release, but many had already downloaded the report and skimmed
through the juicier passages.
5. The Millennium Bug. In '98, with the millennium fast approaching, "Y2K
bug" doomsday scenarios started poppin' up all over the place. Awareness of
the Y2K problem goes back over five years, when Peter de Jager published his article
"Doomsday 2000," illuminating a programming flaw that could crash systems
at the turn of the century. The problem would affect date-sensitive systems using
the prolific MM/DD/YY date format. That's month, date, and year, each stored as two
characters, so that 1993 is stored as "93." Not a problem 'til the century
changes, and the computer doesn't know whether 00 is 1900 or 2000. Where date comparisons
are a hairy big deal, as in insurance policies, banking systems, critical medical
processors, etc., this confusion -- unless fixed -- could bring very bad mojo. Since
information systems managers have been aware of the problem for a while, much has
been done to fix critical occurrences, but there are billions of lines of code driving
millions of systems, so it is unlikely we've fixed them all. De Jager writes in the
January '99 issue of Scientific American that extremely optimistic or pessimistic
scenarios are both as likely to be wrong. A lot of systems will be fixed, hopefully
those with highest priority, but some will fail. We'll be hassled but not destroyed.
His moderate view is not shared by all, however. Some analysts are stocking up on
survival equipment and moving to the wilderness. Possible impact on Austin: the return
of the cosmic cowboy.
6. World-making mergers. AT&T acquired Telecommunications Incorporated
(TCI) in a multibillion-dollar all-stock deal. This deal had huge implications for
consumers, as it pointed to a future in which telephone and cable technologies will
converge within a Network infrastructure that provides high-speed access to voice,
data, and programming. Netscape merged with America Online, causing shudders throughout
the bastions of Net culture. Heretofore, Netscape has been the politically correct
alternative to Microsoft's Internet products, and AOL has been perceived as the worst
case example of mainstreaming, i.e., a proliferation of clueless Internet newbies
who ignore the customs evolved by longtime denizens of cyberspace. The jury is still
out on the real implications of this merger; the real plus could be that AOL subscribers
get a decent browser for a change.
7. U.S. vs. Microsoft. The Justice Department's antitrust suit against
Microsoft has revealed much about Microsoft's aggressive business strategies. It's
been a great show, but it's not over yet. The government has more witnesses to call
after the first of the year, followed by Microsoft's defense. As Wired magazine
noted in "83 Reasons Why Bill Gates' Reign is Over" (in issue 6.12), this
antitrust action is only one aspect of Microsoft's vulnerability. Another is the
fact that a clean, efficient, useable PC operating system could threaten Microsoft's
anchor, the significant penetration of its bloated, buggy Windows OS. And such an
operating system does exist, sort of (see next entry).
On February 4th, 1998, Bill Gates got hit by a cream pie in Brussels. The offender,
a Belgian guy, got away. But Belgium's TV1 got the shot
8. Linux and the Open-Source movement prove that it might not be Bill's world
after all. Linux is a competing PC operating system developed by University of
Helsinki student Linus Torvald in 1991. A kind of Unix variation for small PC systems,
Linux is clean and efficient, though not always easy to use. Expect that to change,
though, by way of the GNOME project, which is creating a friendly graphical interface
for the Linux environment. Linux and Gnome, like the products associated with Richard
Stallman's Free Software Foundation, are "copyleft," which means that anyone
can take the source code and modify it so long as they agree to give those modifications
to the world. Projects like this are labeled "open-source," meaning that
the source code for the programs is available to anyone who wants to study and modify
it. The end result is that a Network of savvy programmers are building and constantly
improving products, not for profit but for the good of the community of users. This
attitude stems from the freewheeling research/experimentation character of the early
Internet, and the fact that it has sustained despite commercialization and IPO mania
makes a significant point: Greed ain't everything. In 1998 Linux was increasing its
market share with commercial (Caldera, Red Hat) and freeware versions proliferating.
Open-source also has corporate support: Netscape released the source code for the
Communicator suite of products. Open-source Netscape developments are coordinated
through the Mozilla organization (http://www.mozilla.org).
9. Internet stocks. Prices for Net-related stocks accelerated like crazy
in 1998, and many Internet companies were scrambling to get their IPOs together so
they could profit from the rush of unbridled enthusiasm. Investors seemed to sense
that they were at the ground floor of Something Really Big, and amateur investors
often don't have a clue how to assess a stock's real value, coming to the market
with an uninformed optimism. John Manley, a Salomon Smith Barney strategist, was
quoted by Newsweek, saying about today's market in general, that "The
pros are scared to death. The amateurs are reasonably confident." Perhaps 1999
will tell whether the Internet boom has a real foundation.
TOP NINE COMPUTER ACCESSORIES
by John Avignone
1. The iMac. Not an accessory, but not quite a full-feature computer, no
one really knows what to think about the iMac except for one thing: Almost everyone
likes this funny-looking, transparent teal computer. It's kind of a cross
between a high-performance desktop computer and the new VW Bug. It is cute, but it
is also a powerful machine. Sure, there are some limitations, but if you're looking
for a simple plug-in-and-use computer, check out the iMac.
2. Diamond Rio MP3 Player. Okay, so it's not really a computer accessory
either, but it is still very cool. Use your computer to download MP3 files -- a near
CD-quality file format -- and take them with you on this palm-sized personal stereo.
The entire recording industry is up in arms over the Rio. This tiny device is causing
huge headaches in weasel land. MP3 has been around for years, but has just appeared
on the radar of the mega-corporate entertainment industry. You never know what's
going to happen, so grab one now, while you can.
3. Personal Digital Assistant. Hand-held PDAs like the 3Com Palm series
are rapidly replacing the legions of clunky Daytimers. Some models even offer wireless e-mail and Web browsing. You can't be a chic geek without a PDA.
4. DVD. Who'd want to watch a movie on their computer? You would, once
you see DVD. And it's not just the full-format, crystal-clear digital sound and picture.
Many titles include extra information you can turn on or off, like narration by the
director. Oh, it's also a great data storage format. Stay away from DIVX DVD players,
though. It's a ridiculous idea dreamed up by a couple of mega-retailers to get more
of your entertainment bucks. No self-respecting nerd would touch it. Home entertainment DVD players that hook up like a VCR are also available.
5. CD-ROM Recorder. For a few hundred bucks you can make your own CD-ROMS.
Some units allow you to re-record over the same rewritable blank disc thousands of
times. With 600 times the capacity and hundreds of times the speed, it is time to
say "adios, floppies!" Combine audio, video, graphics and text in any way
you can imagine. Make mini-movies, master audio CDs, develop educational software,
create interactive presentations or just send friends and family multimedia updates.
You can do it all with a CDR.
6. Cable Internet Access. Time Warner is now offering cable access in Austin.
Cable download speeds are 10 to 100 times faster (depending on whom you connect)
than the fastest dial-up modems. Access is more expensive, but only a few bucks more
than a regular account and dedicated phone line. Watch out, though. The blazing speed
may cause you to lose self-control. When cable TV first came out people would spend
all night staring at the screen and clicking through all of those channels. The same
thing is happening with cable modems. People are staying up all night Web surfing,
mesmerized by pages that load almost instantly and downloads that takes seconds,
not minutes or hours.
7. Memory. Prices have finally stabilized, but at a fraction of where they
were a couple of years ago. No reason not to load up. It's cheap and you can easily
do it yourself. Get 64 megs for older systems and sky's the limit for newer machines.
Your owner's manual will tell you what kind of memory you need and how to install
8. Big Hard Drives. The bigger the better. Now you can get drives close
to 20 GB without selling the ranch. If you want to work with digital audio, get a
SCSI drive. It's well worth the extra bucks for error-free multimedia. With a big
hard drive you can do all sorts of cool multimedia stuff. You can master audio or
even edit video, all digitally and fairly easily. Or you can fill it up with MP3s
for your Rio. Or you can load it up with games. No matter how big the drive, people
will find a way to fill it.
9. Toys! Hey, computers are fun, right? They can be with the right toys.
There are all sorts of great game controllers on the market. Get a steering wheel/gear
shift/pedal combo for racing games or a controller that tilts the screen when you
tilt or how about a total immersion game chair for the really serious goof-off? For
under $100 you can upgrade the multimedia performance of older machines. New speakers
or a 3D add-on card can make a huge difference. If you haven't visited one of the
big computer stores recently, it's worth the trip to see the new toys.
TOP NINE CD-ROM TITLES
by Marcel Meyer
Unlike Hollywood, in the world of interactive gaming, sequels most often yield
a far superior product. For every Free Willy 3 birthed out of Los Angeles,
PC players get a Star Craft: Brood War out of Irvine. Most hard-core gamers
would agree, this year's crop of CD-ROM titles exceeds most of what they viewed on
the silver screen. And while a sociologist might condemn the nation's top-rated games
for teaching violence as the great mediator of disputes, its hard to deny the record
sales of this industry of interactive escapism. From ancient civilizations, to galaxies
far, far away, genius-level programmers have dreamed up a collection of worlds filled
with mutated monsters, post-apocalyptic strife, and political assassinations. The
bestselling titles below continue to fly off the shelf at local retailers. And with
1. Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome (Microsoft). Step back into
antiquity, and let loose the dogs of war. Build armies, defend remote outposts, and
pillage neighboring lands. With newly designed scythe chariots, camel riders, and
slingers, along with precise battle scenarios, this expansion pack for Age of
Empires simmers with all the trimmings of combat. Rise of Rome also adds
four different civilizations to conquer, a mystical new soundtrack, and the opportunity
to accomplish the unthinkable -- build Rome in a day.
Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome
2. Fallout 2 (Interplay). More post-apocalyptic adventure awaits.
As the Chosen One, you must leave the relative safety of your tribe, cross the perilous Wastes, and discover the lost Vault 13. Armed once again with a Pip-Boy and an aged Vault Suit, you must garner experience from breaching the Cave of Trials, surviving armed conflict, and solving the devious riddles which block your path. The magnificently rendered wastelands of Fallout 2 paint so vivid a picture of war-torn destruction, the game serves a function even beyond sheer entertainment, it acts as a deterrent for nuclear war.
3. Half-Life (Valve Entertainment). Enter the underground Black
Mesa Research Facility. Here a top-secret project gone terribly wrong spins your
world upside down, and opens a rift into another universe. As mutant monsters spill
through a tear in space-time, you must use your wits to climb upward to the light
of day. Collect weapons amidst the ruins of chaos, use your best strategy against
supremely intelligent monsters, and hope against hope the government doesn't eliminate
all evidence of you. But as captivating as Half-Life is, the game doesn't
play well on lower-end systems. However, gamers equipped with 3D-FX cards will find
Half-Life full of richer colors, teeming with sound effects, and loaded with
smooth, shoot-'em-up action.
4. Heretic II (Raven Software). In the intricately crafted world
of Heretic II, moonlight shimmers on the darkened streets, creating an atmosphere
so real, so lifelike, it is hard to separate it from reality. Monsters roam with
fluid, lurking gestures, sending pulses of fear into your heart, urging you to back
all the way out of your monitor. But there is no escaping this masterpiece of gaming
technology. Heretic II's unparalleled design (and graphics-defying engine),
is coupled with a new, inventive book of spells that burst out of your hand like
exploding stars. Make a wish, and hang on for dear life. Once you step into this
game, it may never let you go.
5. Lords of Magic: Special Edition (Impressions Software). Fans of
real-time strategy and role-playing fantasy will undoubtedly find a perfect slow-roasted
blend of wide-awake action in Lords of Magic. From the intricately textured
box cover to the hand-tailored fantasy world, adventurers must complete four worthy
quests and destroy the evil Lord Balkoth. Grounded in the Arthurian legends and the
world of Beowulf, this mystical title drapes itself with an assortment of wandering
creatures, lost artifacts, spells, and unique buildings, caves, and dungeons. All
apprentice sorcerers welcome.
6. Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (New World Computing).
Those loyal to the Might and Magic series will no doubt welcome this latest
edition into the tattered fray. With a countryside seemingly as large as Britannia
itself, The Mandate of Heaven is a role-player's dream (or nightmare). As
the leader of a small band of worthy pilgrims, it is your mission to save the royal
Ironfist Dynasty. In the light of day, and the dark of night, your crew must brave
darkened dungeons, fire-breathing dragons, cross angry seas, and restore balance
to the land. And, with the option of real-time or turn-based combat, and hundreds
of mini-quests to keep you distracted, this game is an almost impossible quest to
7. Rainbow Six (Red Storm Entertainment). With Tom Clancy's name
adding credibility to this real-world action game, it is no wonder this title captured
all the buzz of its niche market. As the leader of a highly trained task force, it's
your job to battle international terrorism and still make it home in time for dinner.
Game players used to roaring into an assault with guns blazing will find an entirely
different sensibility here. Attacks and assassinations are accomplished with precise
calculation, but, as in the real world, targets are often taken out with a single
bullet. And because this is a team-oriented contest, Internet play wondrously transforms
the experience into a deadly global game of hide-and-seek.
8. Star Craft: Brood War (Blizzard Entertainment). From the ruins
of the original Star Craft war arises an expansion pack truly worthy of the
name Blizzard Entertainment. Centered around Kerrigan -- the Queen of Blades, Brood
War adds dynamite equipment to an already explosive battle arsenal. Equip yourself
with new Terran Valkyries, field Medics, and Protoss Corsairs for an even wilder
ride across the stars. Also added to the mix are newly designed landscapes, including
a snow-covered tundra, ready to melt under the hot fires of destruction. With a pumped-up storyline that hooks you in from page one, this expansion pack delivers even cleaner movie sequences, and more of that haunting, well-crafted space-opera music.
9. You Don't Know Jack 4: The Ride (Berkley Systems). Trivia games
in the PC market tend to fall by the wayside amidst the blood-and-guts titles of
the War Craft II breed, but those swanky jokesters at Berkley Systems continue
to defy the odds with their bestselling You Don't Know Jack series. With a
fourth installment entitled The Ride, brain teasers and trivia conundrums
create a quiz party show which descends upon pop culture, attitude, and humor. As
an added bonus, The Ride also includes You Don't Hear Jack, a collection of commercial parodies and music. As ridiculous as it sounds, these games really are great for parties.