2008: The year in tech

The year 2008 is coming to a close. As is often the case, the year's headlines were dominated by economics and politics, as the United States elected a new president in the midst of a growing national and international economic crisis. But the year also saw a number of major events in technology, and surely it would be foolish to overlook them. 10stripe has compiled a recap of major goings-on in 3 especially active areas.


  • The year in hardware
  • The year in the Web
  • The year in government

The year in hardware

It was a difficult year for AMD, who began marketing in earnest the products based on their K10 microarchitecture. K10, in the form of Opteron and Phenom processors, had a very rough start in 2007 and missed initial performance goals. Despite all efforts to recover in 2008, AMD was forced into a familiar position: living with inferior performance and cutting prices dramatically to stay competitive. Near the end of the year the company announced the crux of its long-discussed Asset Smart strategy; AMD would spin off its foundries (and thus much of its debt) into a separate company currently known as The Foundry Company.

If it was a bad year for AMD then it is little surprise that it was a solid year for major competitor Intel. The tech giant continued its performance dominance in the microprocessor market, which began in 2006 with the introduction of the Core 2 Duo and was bolstered in 2007 by the release of the Core 2 Quad. 2008 saw more parts in these families but also the introduction of the first Core i7 processors, built on the new Nehalem microarchitecture. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Intel launched its Atom family of low-power microprocessors this year as well. Intel is also a major player in the flash memory market, a strength that it used to gain a foothold in the emerging solid state drive market.

Speaking of solid state drives, 2008 was a break-out year for flash memory-based SSDs. After first coming to market in 2007, the noiseless wonders began to appear in an increasing number of laptops and even desktops throughout 2008, as companies including Toshiba, Samsung, and OCZ introduced many new models. Prices fell dramatically through the year, although the drives remain more expensive per gigabyte than traditional hard drives.

Apple did a great deal to increase the profile of SSDs with the introduction of its thin and light MacBook Air notebook computer, which included an option for an SSD. The Air was part of a busy year for Apple, alongside two refreshes each of the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Those refreshes were almost entirely eclipsed by the new iteration of the iPhone, which brought support for 3G data networks.

The MacBook Air was by no means the only small, light laptop to make waves in 2008; much ado was made about the nascent netbook market. Since the 2007 introduction of Asus's Eee PC, the number of small, inexpensive, "good enough" notebooks on offer has grown with the introduction of products like the MSI Wind. The EEE PC even saw a sequel, in the form of the Eee Box, a tiny desktop containing many of the same components used in the Eee PC.

Meanwhile, several companies were working on streaming media devices. A small company called Roku released the Netflix Player in 2008, which provides access to the full streaming movie catalog of media rental house Netflix. Not long after, Microsoft and Netflix announced that the Xbox 360 would gain similar functionality. Not to be outdone, Sony brought video rental and purchase to the Playstation 3. And in the last days of 2008, Nintendo announced that the Wii would also be getting some (original-content) streaming media, to be launched in 2009 in Japan and later in other markets.

The year in the Web

2008 was a big year for streaming media on the Web, as well. The BBC continued to attract attention to its iPlayer service, which provides free streaming and download of BBC radio and video content (due to rights restrictions, video content is only available within the United Kingdom). Across the pond, United States-users-only video service Hulu publicly launched in 2008, under joint ownership of NBC Universal and News Corp (owner of Fox), with content from several major partners. 2008 was an eventful year for YouTube: The site introduced support for higher-definition videos and switched to a widescreen display format.

The world of online music was more of a mixed bag. YouTube was unable to reach a deal with Warner Music to renew the agreement, struck in 2006, that essentially protected all YouTube videos containing Warner Music content and brought a huge number of Warner music videos to the site. Warner pulled many of its own videos from the site and resumed issuing DMCA takedown requests. After a variety of legal setbacksin its sue-the-downloaders campaign, the RIAA announced that it had reached an agreement with most major ISPs in the United States (except Verizon): it would stop suing downloaders, and would create a "graduated response" system whereby ISPs would warn, punish, and eventually disconnect downloaders.

The renewed browser wars continued to heat up in 2008. Google made a big splash (and, probably, hurt some feelings at Mozilla) when it announced its Chrome browser, based on the WebKit engine used in Safari. Firefox 3.0 was released, as was Opera 9.5. Betas of Internet Explorer 8 and Opera 10.0 began to circulate. The focus of most of these new browsers was better standards compliance, and the inclusion of new standards. Some of them incorporated partial support for the in-development HTML 5 standard.

The year in government

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America's regulator for most matters of technology and communications, had a very busy year. In anticipation of the switch from analog to digital television broadcast in February 2009, the FCC auctioned off a large amount of the 700 MHz-band spectrum that would be vacated. Verizon Wireless and AT&T walked away with quite a bit of spectrum. Google successfully pressed to have open-access requirements, allowing users to use any device, tacked on to some parts of the auction. The FCC was widely seen to have bungled the D Block part of the auction, which required that the winning bidder establish a national network for emergency services communication (in addition to being able to offer other services on other spectrum); the primary bidder, Frontline Wireless, backed out after its investors feared there would be no way to turn a profit under the FCC's rules. Frontline had intended to built a 3G "third pipe" broadband network.

Meanwhile, other plans to establish a "third pipe" (other than cable and DSL) of broadband Internet access went forward. Google, Microsoft, and others in the White Spaces Coalition argued that the FCC should allow devices to take advantage of the remaining unused "white spaces" in the spectrum still allocated to television; they ultimately won FCC approval, though the necessary infrastructure is not yet in place. Sprint and Clearwire finally sealed a deal to merge their WiMAX services into a single entity, to use the Clearwire name. FCC Chair Kevin Martin advocated creating a free national wireless broadband network in the 2.1 GHz band to provide access to users unable to get commercial broadband. His plan was held back by a requirement that pornography be filtered from the network, which was dropped near the end of the year.

The Commission also took part in renewed discussions of net neutrality in various forms. It sanctioned cable ISP Comcast after it became evident that Comcast was interfering with BitTorrent uploads by its customers. At about the same time, Canadian DSL provider Bell Canada came under fire for throttling the connections of its own subscribers and those of ISPs that leased its lines. In Congress, much noise was made about stripping "safe harbor" protections from ISPs that broke net neutrality, or pursuing anti-trust action against them.

2008 may ultimately prove to have been a banner year for Internet censorship. After numerous promises that foreign reporters at the Beijing Olympics would have full, unrestricted Internet access, the Chinese government immediately reneged once foreign reporters actually began to arrive. Under international pressure, it reduced but did not eliminate its censorship. By year's end, the so-called Great Firewall of China was back in full swing. The Australian government continued to move forward with plans to filter all Australian Internet traffic for ostensibly "illegal" content, despite numerous protests from ISPs and the public, and studies sponsored by the government itself that concluded such filtering would be ineffective.

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