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Technology

Hits and misses

Best and worst consumer technologies of 2006

December 27, 2006

With another year of gadgets, games and gizmos come and gone, it's only natural to ask: What hath technology wrought?

This year's crop of prominent mainstream techno-goodies revolved around one common theme: Entertainment. Videos, games and music were at the top of consumers' minds. A roundup of the best and worst of 2006 reflects an increasing focus on leisure time.

Top tech player of the year

YouTube: Though it materialized humbly in public webspace late in 2005, it was 2006 that was the real test for this entertainment site that lets users post their own videos for others to watch.

YouTube.com grew faster than other well-established web hotspots such as MySpace throughout the summer of 2006. Its success caught the eye of Google, which bought it in early October for the staggering sum of $1.65 billion US. Not bad for a website that doesn't really sell anything or produce one millisecond of the content that drives its success.

By giving everyday people the power to become content providers, YouTube tapped into an enormous entertainment market of free creativity and content-starved web-surfers. Some YouTube users have even become internet celebrities and the site's popularity made it a big target for advertisers looking to hit a huge captive audience. Other web-video sites popped up this year, proving the concept itself has a bright future, but with the largest user base, YouTube has for the moment cemented itself as king of free web video.

Runner-up

Nintendo Wii: As one of the most sought-after gadgets this Christmas season, the Wii has largely lived up to its own hype and appears to be squarely conquering casual and hardcore gamers alike.

With a cheap retail price, strong reviews and great word-of-mouth testimonials, the Wii sold at least 1.8 million systems in the pre-Christmas shopping period, according to console-sales tracking site NexGenWars.com.

The console's innovative controller, with its gyroscope and infrared sensor, gives gamers a unique game experience by letting players use their natural arm motions to control the action instead of the traditional thumb-joystick. The biggest question before the system's release was whether the control scheme was more gimmick than gameplay, but if the yelps of delight coming from your neighbour's Wii-party next door are any indication, that question has been answered.

The success of the console has been tempered by reports of the controller's wrist-strap breaking, sometimes sending the wireless gadgets crashing into everything from TV screens to other players. But this doesn't seem to have dampened gamers' enthusiasm for the Wii, and Nintendo has announced a voluntary replacement program for some 3.2 million straps. "From a fun perspective, the Wii has clearly beaten the (Sony) PS3," said Vancouver technology author Darren Barefoot. "The interface is radically different from what any console has had before and it's implemented well in the games themselves. The system is simply fun to play and gamers are responding."

The year's biggest disappointment:

Microsoft Zune: Without doubt, the dubious title of High-Profile Flop of the Year goes to Microsoft's digital media player, the Zune.

The feature-packed, aggressively priced competitor to Apple's ubiquitous iPod arrived in the U.S. with much marketing fanfare, but fell flat on its face with consumers and critics alike. Among many things, detractors have lambasted the Zune's crippled Wi-Fi connectivity, which only allows trading of songs between Zune devices, its incompatibility with Microsoft's own Windows Media Player and its totalitarian copy protection scheme that causes music files shared between Zunes to evaporate after three plays or three days — whichever comes first. Besides being bulkier than the iPod, the Zune prevents users from using it like a portable hard drive to transport files (hackers have already come up with a workaround, but it requires programming cajones that the average buyer is not likely to have).

NPD Group reported in November that the Zune was the second-best seller among portable media devices in its first week on retail shelves, but quickly dropped to fifth place. Since NPD does not report sales from Apple stores, Wal-Mart or Amazon.com, that ranking likely means the Zune's sales are bringing up the rear of the media player pack.

"The Microsoft Zune has just been a huge mess. People have had little more than mediocre things to say about it, which is disappointing given the time and effort put into it," said Canadian technology consultant Boris Mann.

Yet despite a harrowing start, all is not lost for the Zune. Tech gadgets are notorious for frequently having rough "first generation" releases and Microsoft has stated that it is prepared to back the Zune for the long haul. The player still has no stated release date for Canada and Microsoft has hinted that European consumers shouldn't expect to see the Zune in their neck of the woods for about a year at least, so there's plenty of time for Microsoft to go back and fix what's broken with the Zune. For now, however, the Zune is a definite miss.

Image of things to come

On the tube: For 2007, Mann says to expect video streaming to shift from your computer to your TV, as companies devise ways to satisfy users' desires to play content on their brand new large-screen plasma and LCD TV sets.

"Video in general is going to continue to be big and the next step is to get online video right onto people's TVs," Mann said.

In particular, Mann predicts Apple's iTV box, slated for a first- or second-quarter release, will make a big splash, popularizing the idea of streaming video wirelessly from home computers to large-screen TVs — something other companies have tried, but which has so far failed to capture the imagination of the masses. "When Apple makes moves, they always change markets and they've already got the infrastructure in place to sell video, so I think a lot of people are watching and waiting to see how iTV turns out. Certainly all of the Apple faithful are saving their Christmas money," Mann said.

A multitude of other dedicated players with varying features already exist, but none of them handle web browsing well. It's an issue that Apple will have to deal with for the iTV to succeed.

On the way out?

Myspace.com: As for waning trends, while 2006 was a steady year for MySpace, Barefoot warns that the social networking site will need to be on its toes in 2007. A vanguard of competitors, led by the newly revamped Facebook, is hot on the scent of the social-networking leader and many of them seem to be making inroads on MySpace's dominance. Overexposure is also threatening to cheapen the site's cachet, particularly among the younger members of its online audience.

"People no longer think MySpace is cool. Cool always has to migrate to stay fresh, so a source of cool like MySpace has to evolve to be relevant. They need to try new things to stay current or the kids will go elsewhere," Barefoot said.

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