Top Stories of 2001, #10: Surprising Highs and Lows of 2001

As I collected and organized the top stories of 2001, several trends emerged; I detailed the more important developments in the earlier articles in this series. But other stories were significant for various reasons---good and bad--and I'd like to highlight some of those stories in this final installment. As we take this final look back on one of the toughest years ever in high tech, it's humbling to realize that many of the companies, people, and technologies we became so used to over the years quickly fell by the wayside in a blur of economic decay. But we heard some good news, too.

Microsoft gets special mention in any list of this sort, and I'd like to underscore the sheer number of times the company reorganized its corporate structure in 2001. That is, I'd like to, but I can't; I lost track somewhere around May 2001, when I realized that many Microsoft reorganizations were internally implemented and publicly divulged only at a later date. Microsoft likes to shake up things to keep its employees on their toes, I guess, but the company's public stance is that it's responding to changing market demands. Whatever. Just when you get used to dealing with people in a particular division, blink and they're gone. I guarantee that the company that makes Microsoft's business cards has latched onto a gold mine.

Speaking of Microsoft, whatever happened to Whistler Server? At the February 2001 Windows XP technical review I attended in Redmond, Microsoft told us that XP and Whistler Server--later renamed Windows 2002 Server and then renamed again to Windows .NET Server--were on different development paths and that Whistler Server would ship by the end of 2001. Or maybe early 2002. Or was it mid-2002? And now, guess what? I think the release has slipped again. I spent half of 2001 trying to discover whether a Whistler Server WebBlade version was real, but the company told me it had no such plans. In August 2001, however, I discovered the WebBlade version was indeed happening, and Microsoft publicly announced the new version--now called Windows .NET Web Server--when beta 3 of the Windows .NET Server product family shipped in November. Maybe the situation will change again before Whistler Server ships. In late 2002. Or early 2003.

And speaking of future Windows versions, I was surprised to learn about a post-XP Longhorn desktop release that Microsoft revealed in July, but I have an even bigger surprise for you now: This interim version, once thought of as Windows XP Second Edition (XP2E), won't ship any time soon. Instead, Microsoft now expects to ship Longhorn in late 2003, about a year later than originally planned. The reason? I've heard that Microsoft is adding two interesting new features to the release: a SQL Server .NET-based file system (once code-named Storage+) and a .NET "bar" that will sit on the right side of the screen and let Microsoft and third parties integrate plug-ins for Web services such as MSN Calendar, Hotmail, .NET My Services, and other features. This bar is fully extensible (think Active Desktop 2002) so developers can integrate their services into it and legally extend the Windows UI.

As I've noted on my SuperSite for Windows, the Longhorn delivery "extension" makes me believe that Microsoft will ship an updated version of Windows XP this fall. I have no corroborating evidence for this suggestion; it's just a hunch.

In 2001, the Pocket PC came on strong and beat out Palm OS-based devices in several areas. Palm still controls the market, but the tide has clearly turned. Palm and Handspring, the two primary Palm OS-based device makers, had a lot of financial problems as a result, and Palm's move to a more advanced architecture has been slow, giving the Pocket PC an even larger opening. But I'm surprised that these devices still cost so much: You can't get a new Pocket PC device for less than $450, and most of them sell in the $500 to $600 range. That's insane. For those prices, the devices should include internal wireless capabilities and far more memory. Regardless, I predict that Palm is on the road to irrelevancy.

I originally planned to write a "Vaporware of 2001" story, but it didn't work out, so here are some of my top vaporware candidates from last year. The Tablet PC is the clear winner; Microsoft announced the product at COMDEX in 2000, talked up various points throughout 2001, announced it again at COMDEX in 2001, and now won't ship the product until COMDEX 2002. After the initial excitement about this device wore off--and let's face it, a 2-year pause between announcement and release will kill the excitement about any product--it occurred to me that I type much more quickly than I write with a pen, and the resulting text is easier to read. I expect the Tablet PC to bomb, big time. A runner-up in the vaporware category has to be Intel's lackluster Itanium chip, a 64-bit design that was obsolete the day it shipped because the company was already talking up a future generation called McKinley. The market responded logically; the Itanium racked up fewer sales than Sony's Aibo robot dog. Go figure.

The Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Compaq merger would have been huge news if it actually happened, but after months of back-and-forth speculation (will they or won't they?), including some bizarre infighting at HP, the merger is still tenuously waiting for ... something. We don't know what. We just know that it hasn't happened yet. The merger seems to be stalled on a schedule similar to the years-long Microsoft antitrust case, with one glaring difference: It isn't as interesting.

And speaking of Compaq, the company killed its Alpha microprocessor in 2002, a prediction I'm all too saddened to see fulfilled. Originally designed and developed at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the 64-bit Alpha entered the market with high hopes. Alpha's end can be traced to an August 1999 rift between Microsoft and Compaq over the Alpha versions of Windows 2000 and Windows NT; after Compaq cancelled support for NT, Microsoft killed its Win2K Alpha port, which was nearly complete at the time. I expected the companies to kiss and make up because they are huge partners, but it never happened. Two years later, Alpha's gone, and we're stuck with the Itanium. Makes sense.

The wonderful Be OS officially bit the dust in August when Palm bought Be Inc., but it was "dead OS running" long before that. Be realized only $11 million in the sale of its assets, far below the $300 million or so the company might have received had Apple bought it a few years earlier. Bow your heads, people: You probably don't know what you missed.

In the good news department, I've been following the development of Mozilla for some time and entered 2001 completely unimpressed with its lack of progress, but by the end of the year I completely reversed my opinion. Mozilla and, to a lesser extent, its Netscape 6.x cousin are viable and sometimes even superior alternatives to Internet Explorer (IE); and Mozilla has the added benefit of running on non-Windows platforms such as Linux. If you haven't checked out Mozilla recently, do so: The browser is much nicer than it used to be. And if you hate those annoying pop-up windows, Mozilla can automatically get rid of them. On the other hand, if I had written the "Vaporware of 2001" article, I'd have been forced to include Mozilla: Three years into its development, Mozilla still isn't ready for its 1.0 release.

In 2001 I saw delightful signs of life from one-time Microsoft competitor Novell, which suddenly seemed to realize that it had silently conceded the directory-services market to Microsoft. And the company decided to do something about the situation. Novell launched a campaign aimed at informing customers how its decade of work in this area had resulted in a superior product, sued Microsoft for deceptive advertising, and even came after me when I wrote an article that, if not anti-Novell in tone, did at least have the temerity to laud the progress of Active Directory (AD), Microsoft's directory-services entry. Bravo, Novell.

Apple already made my top-10 list, but I want to at least mention again that I bought an iBook in 2001; that's how good this company's hardware (and software) is. I sometimes come down hard on Apple, but the criticisms are almost always misunderstood. Apple makes good products, but it exaggerates their performance and sells them almost exclusively to its existing installed base, which limits their appeal. I desperately want Apple to take steps into the wider world and, yes, be more honest about its products' capabilities. But I'll tell you this: That little iBook gets better battery life than any Wintel laptop I've used, and I review at least one laptop a month for Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE. When I want to watch a DVD movie or get work done during an entire cross-country flight, the iBook is always my first choice.

So that's about it. I could always find more news, of course, but I have to stop somewhere. I had hoped to make digesting a year of news a little more manageable than last year's summary of 2000, but in the end, it took me 3 weeks and 11 articles to write this review, so maybe I need to rethink things yet again. At least I have a year to plan. See you next year!

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