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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In 2009, Web goes on a diet

2009 was, in many ways, a good year for the Web and the technologies that help us access it. Companies big and small had to re-evaluate what was important: an ethos that channeled into more focused product launches and notable improvements to existing software and services.

That refocus meant tech giants spent the early part of 2009 trimming the fat on services that were too costly to run, or simply underused. Google cut a myriad of its offerings, shelving microblogging service Jaiku, its social network Dodgeball, Google Video, catalog search, "shared stuff," and its notebook service. Yahoo followed suit, dropping the ax on its Briefcase online storage service, closing off access to its Jumpcut Web video editor, and 360 blogging tool. Yahoo also pulled the plug on Geocities--one of the Web's early relics. Other notable discontinuations include Microsoft killing off its online encyclopedia Encarta, and HP getting rid of its Upline backup solution.

Services that were not shut down saw improvements. Google's Gmail finally left beta, and gained a feature that lets users access it offline. The company also launched Google Wave--a somewhat experimental real-time collaboration service. Microsoft's Windows Live Search was relaunched as a new product called Bing, which was received well both by the press and users. Bing, along with Yahoo and Google, also integrated real-time results from social networks like Facebook and Twitter.


Speaking of Microsoft and Yahoo, Microhoo finally happened--though not as it was originally intended. In late July, Microsoft and Yahoo entered a 10-year search deal that gave Yahoo Microsoft's search engine technology, while Microsoft got Yahoo's ad sales force and partners; The result was quite different from 2008's $44.6 billion unsolicited bid that would have given Microsoft complete control of the company.

2009 also brought new location-based tools, some of which, by some accounts, are a little creepy. Microsoft's Bing got its own version of local maps, complete with a street-level view. And at the South by Southwest tech and music conference in Austin, Texas, Foursquare debuted. The service lets people show where they are to their friends, and vice versa. The month prior, Google launched a similar service called Latitude that would put a user's exact location on a map--right down to the city block. Google also expanded its Maps and Earth services, taking street view outside of the U.S., and Google Earth took users to the Earth's oceans, the moon, and Mars.

Along with search and location, 2009 was a boon year for social networks. Facebook in particular saw huge gains in its number of registered users. It began the year with 150 million users, and is now well past 350 million. That's no small feat, as recent projections boasted the much-hyped and talked about Twitter somewhere close to 60 million, up from less than 10 million at the beginning of the year. Twitter also gained some celebrity traction, netting an account from Oprah Winfrey as well as Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher went on to become the first Twitter user to hit 1 million followers, beating out news network CNN. He's since blown past 4 million.

Both Twitter and Facebook also continued to show that they are an integral part in the spread of information. Controversy over Iran's presidential elections, and the Iranian government censorship that followed made the social networks one of the few places Iranians could go to vent frustrations and pass across news tidbits that would have otherwise gone unseen. Twitter even skipped its scheduled maintenance to stay up--as per a request from the U.S. State Department. Facebook, in turn, rushed to provide support for Farsi so Iranian users could join it.

Twitter was also the first place to go to see photos of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which had to make an emergency landing in New York's Hudson River. Nearby ferry riders snapped the first shots of the crash and uploaded them to photo host Twitpic, which ended up crashing because of the sudden, and massive traffic spike.

Besides social networks, voice services and VoIP telephony were big in 2009. E-commerce giant eBay sold off its Skype services to an investor group that now runs it as its own product, with hopes of an IPO in 2010. Google redesigned its GrandCentral service as a product called Google Voice, which was opened up to users after a year and a half of dormancy. Google also snatched up Web-based VoIP service Gizmo5, which could end up being integrated into Google Voice. Other notable telephony launches include 3Jam, which does voice forwarding and transcription, and Ribbit's mobile service. Both of those companies, along with Google, are trying to get users to manage their calls and voice mails online, functionality that is likely to expand in 2010.


Even with a flashy relaunch, Google Voice had its own share of controversy. This year the service got into hot water with AT&T. It started when Apple pulled all the third-party Google Voice applications from its App Store, along with rejecting Google's submission of its own Google Voice application. This action caused the FCC to launch an inquiry to see why the apps were removed, as well as why Google's Voice application was not allowed onto Apple's store.

It turns out AT&T was not having any part of Google's blocking phone calls to certain parts of the country that would have cost the company more money to connect users to. In late-October Google bounced back, announcing that it had limited the amount of blocked numbers to fewer than 100. Despite this, 2009 closed out without any Google Voice apps (including Google's own) making it back onto the App Store.


Finally, 2009 saw a continuation of the browser wars. Mozilla iterated on the third version of its Firefox browser several times, while Microsoft, Apple, and Opera introduced brand new versions of Explorer, Safari and Opera, respectively. Google took the crown though--it managed to jump two version numbers, going from version one to three, with version four currently in developer testing.

Chrome also jumped from being just a browser to a full-fledged operating system. In late November, Google publicly demoed Chrome OS, an instant-on browser-based operating system designed for Netbooks. Users, however won't be getting their hands on hardware that will run Chrome OS until mid- to late 2010.

Reference: news.cnet.com

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