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The year that was

Looking back, 2004 felt an awful lot like 1994

The Internet turned 35 this year yet somehow 2004 managed to create an air of excitement about the medium’s potential. The sense of possibility is almost as rich as it was a decade ago. In fact, some of this year’s trends harken back to then, too.

One note: unlike the past year-enders, I will make one prediction — and you’ll find it at the very end.

Firefox

The browser that didn’t even exist last year has been downloaded more than 14 million times and accounts for about four percent of the global browser audience. Born as m/b, and known as both Phoenix and Firebird, before latching onto its final name, this is a “tiny, perfect” browser designed to be loved by both the grandparents and the grand geeks.

Along with its technical merits, Firefox created a lot of buzz (helped both by the countless security flaws in IE and by the end-of-year, two-page New York Times ad) and helped accomplish the almost unimaginable one-two punch of weakening IE’s market dominance and resurrecting the dead-and-buried Netscape browser.

RSS

The XML-format whose ancestors once powered push broke through the mainstream this year, thanks largely to its adoption by Yahoo, Google (through Blogger and the Atom format), and the big news sites. Helping boost the format’s popularity (which some tried to dub “webfeeds”) was the maturation of the aggregators; RSS readers within browsers (Firefox’s Live Bookmarks, and the Sage extension, Opera, and the upcoming Safari 2.0); and the always effective snowball effect.

With its success came the proverbial commercialization and scalability tests. Though the format is still being tested, it’s survived civil wars, and will doubtlessly be able to serve ads to billions in the future.

Google

This was the year the search engine company that promises to do no evil went public; launched a sub-par social network; a Webmail service so popular invitations were being auctioned on eBay; and a desktop search which spawned a half-a-dozen competitors within months. Google also launched a local service in Canada, reviews on its e-commerce site, and a auto-complete like suggestion interface that wowed the geeks. Google also became the default ping and was rumoured to be developing a Mozilla-based browser or operating system.

Despite countless challenges (legal and Microsoftian alike), it may have been a year-end event that proved Google final made it: a virus was written exclusively to exploit the search engine.

We all know it’s not going anywhere, but this year Google showed its potential to world which provoked both fear and laughter.

Registration

Maybe I’m too close to this one, but this year felt as though every site was putting up a wall penetrable only after signing away your first born (or visiting BugMeNot). Whether registration was found on Blogger- and MovableType-based services (to prevent comment spam) or every major Canadian newspaper (to imcrease ad dollars), information — if still free — was being kept on a very tight leash.

The one side-effect of this all, when combined with a surge in online revenues, might be more sites encouraging the creation of a community through comments, forums, and other initiatives — but that’s a bit too much prognostication.

Blog Buzz

Maybe I’m too far from this one, but some notable American Web pundits believe the blogger should be Time’s “Person of the Year.” (As it turned out they were mentioned in Time and chosen by ABC.) With the echo chamber that is political blogging amplified by the U.S. election (and Wonkette and Rathergate), many see this as the year blogging provided itself a valid alternative or adjunct to journalism. Thanks to the publication of Dan Gillmor’s We the Media (who resigned from the San Jose Mercury News) the concept of citizen journalism final got its manifesto. Merriam-Webster even declared it the word of the year (Peter what hath though wrought?).

In Canada, blogging has yet to penetrate the mainstream. City blogs have crept onto the scene and spurred at least one alt-weekly to start a blog. A few more journalists have started blogging here, and while the Globe and Mail added more blogs (all run by Mathew Ingram) the National Post closed its sole effort.

Still, no one outside a very few of my more Web-minded colleagues keep regular blogs, and almost no one admits to reading them.

A Prediction

Really, its more of a promise: the long-promised redesign will happen this year or this site will close-up shop.