There's a gleam in technology enthusiasts' eyes when they look forward to 2004. Since the computer industry started plummeting around the beginning of 2001, there has been plentiful innovation, but nobody has quite been able to persuade consumers or businesses to buy anything in large enough volumes to turn the industry around.

That's ready to change. The pace of innovation is still dramatic; but now people and companies are ready to take them on board. So here's your look forward to what's going to happen, and not happen, in 2004, followed by my advice on what and what not to do. (And if you want to see my predictions for 2003 which I'd say stand up well they're online here (behind The Independent paywall), or more simply here on this site).

• Spam will get worse before it gets better, but it should get better (as in, reduce) by the end of the year. Better filtering technologies, allied to moves by big ISPs such as Microsoft and AOL to make mail servers more identifiable, will help cut down on the unnecessary amount of body/wallet/sex life enhancement we're continually and unnecessarily offered.
Status: Unclear. If you go to look at the Postini stats (which are only for the past six months) there's a general up-py trend, but nothing like previous years. However blog comment spam has surely grown.

• The US's "CAN-SPAM" Act, intended to cut spam and which comes into force on January 1, will actually make the level of spam worse. (See this Spamhaus page for why.) It will have a short and unhappy life, then get repealed, as happened in South Korea, which tried and reversed a similar law a couple of years ago.
Status: Wrong. No signs it's going to be repealed yet. But the US has other things on its mind.

• There won't be a huge internet-busting data-destroying worm or virus, because virus writers appear to have moved past that stage of simple, wilful destruction. Any of the viruses which appeared in the past year could have wiped hard disks clean once they'd propagated; they didn't. That suggests that as in real life, where very few primary infections kill their host, the writers of "malware" have realised that destructive programs have shorter lives.
Status: Correct, and incorrect. There was a data-destroying worm, a variant of MyDoom, in February. But it wasn't huge.

• There will be more viruses and worms that silently exploit holes in Microsoft Windows for criminal motives such as passing on credit card details and bank passwords. These are the offspring of virus writers hired by organised crime.
Status: Correct. Symantec found 4,496 new instances of malicious code aimed at the Microsoft operating system, up some 450 percent over the previous six months.

• There will also be more "phishing" scams to get you to enter your financial and other details into web pages or emails. These too are from computer people working for organised crime.
Status: Correct. The Anti-phishing Group plonks the graph right on its front page.

• Legal music downloading stores will arrive properly, spurred by the arrival in Europe of Apple's iTunes Music Store in the spring, which will galvanise people with iPods (which is a lot). Those people have ignored existing online stores because their iPod can't play the Windows Media format used by those stores.
Status: Correct. The European iTunes Music Store opened in June and sold 800,000 songs in its first week, five million by the end of August. Dozens followed. Even Woolworths.

• Some of the music download stores which opened in 2003, and are set to open in 2004, will "consolidate" that is, close or merge, because it's not a money-making market.
Status: Unclear. Still waiting on that one.

• The majority of the download stores will keep using Microsoft's WMA (Windows Media Audio) format, but Apple won't support that on the iPod.
Status: Correct.

• At least one other download store will join Apple in using the Dolby "AAC" encoding format, because that's the only way to reach iPod owners.
Status: Correct. Real announced its music store using AAC on January 7.

• Picture cameras will become pervasive; it'll be unusual not to have one.
Status: Unclear. Anyone got numbers?

• USB flash memory sticks (which you plug in to a port on a computer, providing extra storage space) will become very popular, and applications will be released that can be stored on them to run on any computer without altering its settings. Presently, 256Mb costs 125; expect that to halve this year, so you could carry a stripped-down operating system in your pocket to boot any machine to look like yours. In the long term, this could lead to stripped-down computers where the machine holds no important data; it's all on the USB stick.
Status: Correct. At least, about the "cheaper" bit, and you could put Knoppix, a stand-alone Linux distribution, onto a flash drive. Or take this example of taking your Outlook data on a flash drive. The longer-term stuff.. we'll have to wait.

• Digital media players will be released which can store and display gigabytes of photos. Hard disk space is cheap; small liquid crystal displays are cheap; and both nature and marketing people abhor a vacuum.
Status: Correct. Epson had one, and soon (Oct 10) Apple will.

• Neither the Windows Media Center [sic] nor the Tablet PC formats will take off. Both will grumble along in background sales, but won't become mainstream products, nor even significant in sales terms.
Status: Correct. Everyone asks Will Tablet sales take off?. Note it's not "when will Tablet sales take off?" The Media Center hasn't wowed either: The Register reckons (October) that it's been consigned to the nearly-dead.

• Apple won't release a tablet computer, or a phone, or a camera. It may just squeeze its hot G5 chip into a laptop, perhaps using liquid cooling, by autumn. There won't be a single virus or worm that attacks Mac OSX.
Status: Correct. As of October 10.

• Rural areas frustrated by BT's slowness in upgrading exchanges to ADSL will build on the growing experience of local communities and get third-party wireless broadband installed. This has been helped by the Radiocommunications Agency's licensing in 2003 a slice of spectrum specifically aimed at long-distance high-speed wireless internet communications.
Status: Unclear. BT dramatically expanded the availability of broadband, meaning lots of people didn't hae to use expensive satellite. But it will take until summer 2005 for the complete rollout to be complete

• 3G still won't be a huge hit. By autumn, a few of the phone companies will have launched 3G services, but targeted tightly at commercial users. Even those will struggle against the growing availability of public Wi-Fi, which commercial users will prefer.
Status: Correct, arguably. October finds Vodafone pushing its 3G service very hard at corporate road warriors. Consumers can forget it.

• "PVRs" which store TV programmes on a hard disk will become more widely available at lower prices. They will compete head-on with DVD recorders, which have the advantage of permanence but the expense of the cost of the disks. With hard disk capacity doubling for a given price, it'll be hard for DVD recorders to compete.
Status: Unclear. DVD recorders are an esier sell, but Sky has been pushing the Sky+ like nobody's business.

• People will keep pushing the idea of "home media servers" that unite your hi-fi and TV and computer. Personally, having thought this was inevitable for some years, I'm now starting to think the two are too disparate to be united, unless you can control everything from your sofa which requires a Tablet-style controller that you can also type into. Nobody's making that, and the Windows Media Center isn't it, either. Apple might have a chance, but it has its eyes on other areas presently.
Status: Correct. It's not the Media Center, after all.

Advice for the year ahead:

• If you're buying a computer in the coming year, don't get one that uses Windows. It's simply too insecure. (Did you know there's a secret "Administrator" account and password on every machine? You didn't, but every hacker does.) Get one with Linux installed (Evesham does them, for example) or an Apple machine with OSX. Both operating systems are fast, stable and secure. With Windows XP.. well, sometimes two out of three IS bad.
Status: Vindicated, judging by all the exploits against Windows this year.

• If you're buying, get a laptop. You'll love the freedom if you've not used one before.
Status: Anyone out there bought a desktop and said "I'm so glad I can't use this in another room"?

• If you're using Windows, stop using Internet Explorer; try Netscape, Mozilla or Opera. IE has too many security holes for comfort.
Status: The rise of Firefox, which bit points off Internet Explorer's share, suggests some people had the same idea.

• Ditto Outlook Express; try programs such as Eudora or Opera or Mozilla.
Status: Mozilla's Thunderbird was popular, but not as much as a replacement browser. A pity, since viruses still spread principally through email.

• Invest in a good spam filter such as POPfile or PostArmor. You'll be glad of it later.
Status: Well, did you?

• Get an RSS reader: it's a great way to skim the "news" from blogs and news sites (see this page for a list).
Status: Increasingly essential; Firefox, which (on Windows) has RSS support, vindicates this.

• Get a DVD burner, if you haven't got one already: they're getting cheap and fast, like CD burners five years ago.
Status: A good idea, still.


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