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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 10:07 GMT
Net changes of 2005
Wi-fi, sharing online and copy-protection on CDs preoccupied technology commentator Bill Thompson during the past 12 months.

Using wi-fi in a field in Oregon
Wi-fi is changing how and where people go online
I'm writing this in the cabin of an Easyjet Airbus 319 flying back from Venice to London, but there is no wireless signal evident so I'll have to wait until I'm back in Cambridge before I send it off for publication.

That I'm slightly disappointed because I can't get online from the skies over France shows just how much the network has penetrated into our daily lives, at least here in the developed western world, and how we now notice the places where we can't get access instead of those where we can.

More often than not, I am using wi-fi to get online, and I was clearly wrong a couple of years ago when I argued that wireless was not going to be a disruptive technology.

I had ignored the network effects that happen when a significant proportion of devices get wireless capability, and thought too much about full-size computers rather than the many other devices that can benefit from a net connection.

At home, our desktop machines are wireless, but so are the laptops and my son's PlayStation Portable. And my daughter's handheld has wi-fi built in which means she can use it as a Voice over IP (Voip) phone and save on her mobile costs.

In fact the last device actually plugged into the network with a cable is the Xbox, and once we get our hands on a 360, that will go wireless too. If anyone wants a selection of Ethernet cables, grey, hardly used and in varying lengths then get in touch.

We are already seeing new business models emerging on top of the growing number of home and small office wireless networks. Martin Varsavky's FON, for example, offers you software that can turn your network node into a shared wi-fi access point, either free to use if you're a "Linus" or charged for if you're a "Bill".

It is an interesting idea, fatally flawed by the terms of use of most internet service providers which seem to make it a breach of contract to install the software, but we will no doubt see lots of similar innovations before someone "does a Skype" and gets it right.

Sharing times

If wireless had a good year, then internet phone company Skype itself had a fantastic one, frightening the telecoms companies, acquiring millions of users and ending up being sold to eBay in September for $2.6bn down and another $1.5bn in 2008 if things go well.

Bill Thompson
If social networking services did well, then it was a pretty disastrous year for the music industry and its attempts to limit what we do with the music we buy
Other successes, though rather more modest financially, were the photo-sharing site Flickr and link sharing site del.icio.us, both sold by their founders to Yahoo.

Neither offers the threat to a major industry that Skype and Voip in general do to the telecoms companies, but both are good examples of how the network makes things that used to be hard simple to the point that you don't notice them.

My photos of Venice were up on Flickr long before I got home from my break, thanks in part to a wireless connection, of course.

Whether Yahoo will respect the values of these early adopter communities enough to keep things going remains to be seen. I like Flickr, but I would move to another site in an instant if it offered cooler features and Yahoo should never confuse geek approval with loyalty or lock-in.

Still, it is good to see some second-generation internet plays finally coming good after the years of caution which followed the dotcom implosion.

It is a shame that the significant ones come, as before, from the US but we might see Indian or even Chinese innovations come to the fore when we go once more around the cycle. The next bust should be in 2009 or so, with a rebound by 2012, so there is time for things to develop.

The song remains the same

If social networking services did well, then it was a pretty disastrous year for the music industry and its attempts to limit what we do with the music we buy.

Natasha Bedingfield
Sony used the copy-protection on a Natasha Bedingfield CD
After years of skirmishing on the borders of copyright law and an occasional more serious engagement over file-sharing and peer-to-peer networks, this year the attitude of the record companies became obvious when it was revealed that Sony BMG had been installing illicit software on people's computers.

The rootkit debacle was made worse when the company denied, obfuscated, retreated, released an even more dangerous uninstaller that didn't uninstall, were exposed as having used a second, even more malicious, copy protection system on some disks, and were then disowned by their artists, some of whom began sending out unprotected CDs to aggrieved fans.

It was a mess for Sony, and has also alerted the CD-buying public to the dangers that can come from using a so-called protected CD.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, then I would suspect that a mole from one of the anti-digital rights management campaigning groups had gone underground 10 years ago and worked their way up the Sony hierarchy just so they could suggest something that was guaranteed to destroy the credibility of copy-protection technology for CDs.

However, I am happy to accept that it was ignorance coupled with paranoia that drove Sony into this misjudged move.

The real danger is if the music industry responds not by accepting that they need to trust their customers more but by trying to exert even more control, and perhaps using their lobbying powers to change laws to make their systems unavoidable.

The response of the music, film and other digital content industries to the growing reach of the net is surely going to be one of the main themes of 2006, along with even more wireless, of course.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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