BISSEX: 1997: The Year in Strife

In the digital realm, 1997 was above all a year of conflict. Market forces, civil liberties, government regulations, individual greed, and general litigiousness all clashed on high-tech turf. Here are my short takes on some of the significant battles of 1997.Deep Blue vs. Humanity. June's highly publicized match between World Champion Garry Kasparov and IBM's Deep Blue chess computer was the culmination of decades of research, speculation, and anxiety. Kasparov, who lost, has since challenged the machine to a rematch, perhaps hoping to win a final match before the inevitable -- a truly unbeatable chess computer -- arrives. Kasparov seemed less aware (or interested) than anyone that the whole event was primarily a public relations stunt for IBM.Netscape vs. Microsoft. At the beginning of 1997, Netscape's share of the Web browser market was almost three times Microsoft's. By the year's end, the gap between the two had narrowed to less than 20 percentage points. Will the two switch places, putting Microsoft in the top slot of the hottest desktop software category? That may depend on the outcome of ... United States vs. Microsoft. In October, Attorney General Janet Reno accused Microsoft of "unlawfully taking advantage of its Windows monopoly." So many aspects of this ongoing case are unprecedented that it's hard to predict what will happen, but Microsoft-haters are nonetheless elated. Every week, Microsoft seems to dig itself in deeper -- pooh-poohing the idea that they are a powerful monopoly, yet suggesting that the American economy can't afford to be without them. Will anybody stand in their way? That may depend on the outcome of ... Apple Computer vs. Itself. Apple Computer began the year badly: discontinued products, plummeting stock, departing executives. It's too early to say whether a real turnaround has been accomplished, but the company has stopped its freefall. The return of charismatic Apple co-founder Steve Jobs gives many loyalists hope that "the old Apple" will rise again. Still, many of Jobs' decisions (killing off the burgeoning Macintosh "clone" industry, for instance) have angered Mac-heads. With Apple now commanding less than 6 percent of the desktop market, they can't afford too many more big mistakes.Push vs. Pull. 1997 began with a deafening buzz over "push media," which was supposed to kill off the Web browser with TV-like "channels." This is in contrast to the Web's basic "pull" model, in which you actively seek out the stuff you want to see. Promoters didn't talk a lot about how labor-intensive push is to produce, or whether people really want it. The thing that made the Web great -- heaps of information offered free to the world by dedicated individuals -- can't be recreated with a costly, complex technology. While many well-funded commercial ventures dabbled in push, the lack of broad standards and the limited audience kept it from its predicted success in 1997.CDA vs. the First Amendment. A Federal court ruling finding the Communications Decency Act of 1996 unconstitutional was upheld by the Supreme Court in June. The law, characterized by the Court as "overly broad," could have meant prison terms and $250,000 fines for adults discussing topics such as homosexuality or sexually transmitted diseases online. Cyber-libertarians called for "dancing in the streets" after the decision, but the law's supporters were not fazed; CDA successors are already underway. And until our debate on these issues gets more sophisticated, those paternalistic bills will keep on coming.Individual Privacy vs. Corporate Publicity. Online privacy issues went mainstream this year. This was thanks in part to the Federal Trade Commission's keen interest in data-gathering practices, particularly in regard to children. Unfortunately, the FTC's threats of crackdown were defused by industry dog-and-pony shows touting "self-regulation" technologies and standards. It looks like it may take some heinous abuses to convince people that making actual laws to protect privacy is a good idea.


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