The Top 15 Web Tech Stories of 2008

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2008 was an eventful year on the web. From Yahoo! spurning Microsoft to Google launching both a browser and a cell phone (sort of), there was a lot to write about this year. Even though I only started writing about web technology news for SitePoint starting in July, I’ve actually been writing about this stuff all year. So it was fun and interesting to take a look back at everything that’s happened this year on the web, and try to pick out the top 15 stories. Below are my selections, along with plenty of links to further reading material to keep you busy. It’s a lengthy post, but it was a long and action packed year.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading this year-end recap as much as I did creating it. Let us know if any big stories were left off the list that you think should have been included by leaving a note in the comments at the end of this post. These are presented in no particular order (but numbered for readability).

1. The US Presidential Campaign

The Internet played a huge role in the presidential election in the United States in 2008. No only did more people than ever turn to the web for election information, the Internet also allowed candidates to raise incredible amounts of money from small donors and build powerful grassroots networks that were never before possible. US President-Elect Barack Obama in particular was able to build a campaign on the back of this emerging political long tail and energize people who were not easily reachable using previous methods of organizing and fundraising.

The second episode of the new SitePoint Podcast was dedicated to the effect of the Internet on electoral politics.

2. Yahoo! Turns Down Microsoft

On February 1, 2008 Microsoft made a $44.6 billion takeover offer of Yahoo!. A couple of week’s later Yahoo! would reject that offer — a move that might go down in the annals of company history as their second worst decision (the first being not buying Google in 2002 for $5 billion) and ultimately led to CEO Jerry Yang stepping down in November. Yahoo! tried to sign an advertising deal with Google a few months later that would have outsourced their search ad sales to the more popular search engine, but that went south when the US Department of Justice got interested in the potential antitrust implications.

Rumors still run rampant about Microsoft potentially coming to the table again, purchasing just a piece of Yahoo!, or offering their own search advertising deal, but one thing is for sure: Yahoo!’s market cap is now less than half of what Microsoft offered to spend to acquire the company.

3. Apple’s iPhone App Store is a Huge Success

iPhone debuted the App Store for their iPhone device in July of 2008 and it has been an undeniable success. Analysts predict that next year the App Store will be a $1.2 billion business for Apple, and we reported in August that many developers are doing quite well writing software for the phone platform full-time.

The iPhone platform now has over 10,000 applications, but we’ve wondered how many of them are worth your time and money. More importantly, we’ve wondered if the Apple model for the App Store is really good for consumers. Closed platforms like Apple’s, in which one company is the ultimate gatekeeper, are ultimately a bad thing for the web.

Regardless, iPhone users should not miss our list of 5 awesome iPhone productivity apps.

4. Google Delivers Android

Not content to let Apple have all the mobile fun, at end of last year Google launched Android, their open source mobile phone operating system. In September of this year, the first Android phone arrived, in the form of the T-Mobile G1, manufactured by HTC.

The phone hasn’t been quite the iPhone killer that pundits hoped for, but it is certainly one of the most compelling phones on the market, and because Android is open source, more “Google phones” from other handset manufacturers are sure to follow.

5. Google Releases Chrome Web Browser

The mobile web isn’t the only place Google was getting “Googley” this year. The Mountain View, California-based search giant surprised everyone in September by releasing their own web browser. Called Chrome, the open source web browser is based on the WebKit rendering engine and left beta earlier this month. Though still very rough around the edges, Chrome has already garnered as much as 1% of the browser market worldwide in just 3 months, a number that we expect to rise as important planned features — such as extensions — are added.

Chrome is specifically designed with web applications in mind, and as we’ve discussed, it is an important part of Google’s 3-pronged Web OS strategy. Along with Gears (offline data store) and Native Client (local CPU resources for web apps), Chrome gives Google a compelling platform for the delivery of web applications.

However, Chrome might be coming at the expense of Firefox, which Google has long supported. At the very least, the release of Chrome has complicated Google’s formerly warm relationship with Mozilla.

6. Microsoft Plans to Bring Office Online — Finally

Starting sometime in 2009, Microsoft will finally begin to offer a web-based version of Office. That’s a huge departure from their previous attitude toward web applications, and a somewhat surprising development considering what a cash cow the Office line of products has been for Microsoft. It is, however, in line with the new future that Microsoft has been talking up in which both the client and the cloud play complimentary roles.

“I contend it makes no sense to try to push [lots of data and processing] up the wire [to the cloud, just] so that it can come back and talk to you,” Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie told Technology Review in September. “And so, ultimately, that leads us back to what I call this composite platform, where you’ve got a balanced set of roles between what you expect the cloud to provide and what you expect the clients to provide themselves.”

In Microsoft’s vision of the future of software, web services and web-based applications rely on local client software to get more intensive processes done. That’s a future that isn’t all that different from the one that Adobe is also working toward.

7. Economic Recession

In December, the United States’ National Bureau of Economic Research officially admitted that the US has been in a recession since December 2007. The effects of that recession have been felt worldwide, including in the tech industry where over 110,000 jobs have been lost since October.

That’s some depressing stuff, and it’s putting a damper on my holiday spirit, so we’ll not spend much time on it. But if you were one of the unfortunate people who lost their job or have found yourself a few clients short as a result of the economic crisis, be sure to check out our 10 essential tips for landing your next job, as well as our list of 20 places to find your next web dev job. Also don’t miss our 12 killer ways to make extra income on the web.

We definitely wish you luck in finding a new job in 2009!

8. OpenID Gains Traction — Sort Of; So Does Facebook Connect

OpenID won some huge partners over the past year. Most impressively, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft are all now OpenID providers. Unfortunately, that’s as far as their integration of the single sign-on standard has gone — none of them have taken the plunge to become relying parties. Further, they have each implemented OpenID in their own way creating a single sign-on war (they each want to be the de facto identity provider for the web), that is ultimately bad for consumers in our opinion.

Perhaps worse news for OpenID: according to Yahoo! research most people still have no idea what it is. And, Facebook might just eat OpenID’s lunch.

Facebook Connect, which was announced in July, is a single sign-on solution that on some level competes with OpenID. What gives is an advantage is that Facebook Connect comes with your social graph data.

“Because Facebook Connect is not just a registration system, but also a marketing channel with a built-in audience of 130 million monthly active users (according to Facebook), this program will crush competing registration systems,” wrote CNET’s Rafe Needleman about Facebook’s system. “Sites will adopt Facebook Connect for two reasons. First, their users are already actively using it; millions of users have OpenID log-ins and don’t even know it. And second, because it’s not just a registration system, it’s that marketing channel. Self-interest (on the part of site owners) wins over philosophy. Facebook gets that. That’s why it wins.”

9. The Price of Music is Now … Free?

Radiohead’s name-your-own price release of their album In Rainbows last fall set the stage for the price of music to start a decent toward zero in 2009. The success of Radiohead’s gimmick encouraged other bands to follow suit. REM streamed their new album for free on iLike, and Pennywise put their album on MySpace, as did Oasis.

But the most famous free release from 2008 was from Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor — who had previously experimented with alternative album release schemes with Saul Williams, a slam poet whose album he produced — put out not one, but two new albums for free on the web.

By selling value-adds, such as signed copies and deluxe DVD editions of the albums, Reznor was able to still make a considerable amount of money by self-publishing his music online and giving it away for free. Likely, he also garnered some new fans to support NIN’s 2008 tour due to the all the attention and awareness that the word “free” commands. Though Reznor had a lot of help from major labels in building his group of core fans, his success at giving away a free album was on some level a confirmation of Kevin Kelly’s theory of “true fans,” which states that artists can make a living from a small group of die-hard fans.

10. Professional Video Content Fights Back

According to comScore, Hulu — a joint venture between Fox and NBC that offers professionally created content — cracked the list of the top 10 video sites on the web in July in the tenth spot at 88 million views. A few months later in October? Hulu is now sixth and streaming 235 million videos in the US each month.

Think that worries Google? You betcha. YouTube is still way out in front, dominating the online video market with almost 40% of all video views at over 5.3 billion, but the average length of the videos that users are watching is up from 2.7 minutes per video in July to 3 minutes in October. The likely reason: Hulu.

Clearly, people are responding to professionally created content. People are becoming so used to getting their TV content on demand, via web sites like Hulu and DVRs, that we think on demand will be television’s future. Not wanting to be left behind as long-form, professional content shifts to a web distribution model, YouTube began supporting full-length video content in October.

Remember, YouTube initially rose to its dominant position on the back of professional content (like viral Saturday Night Live clips such as “D*ck in a Box”) that were uploaded to the site. Everything old is new again.

11. Firefox Hits 20% Market Share

In June, the popular Firefox web browser released its third version with the goal of setting a world record for most downloads in a 24 hour period. They definitely met that goal with a super impressive 8 million downloads over the first day of release.

More impressively, though, Firefox hit 20% browser market share for the first time over a couple of weeks in October, and has since stayed there. Unfortunately, once extensions arrive for Google’s Chrome, Firefox might start to see those numbers slip. And their relationship with Google is already starting to turn, as we noted earlier in this round up.

12. DRM Almost Dies … Almost

DRM is still here, but it’s a lot closer to dead at the end of 2008 than it was at the end of the 2007. In January, the final hold out among the major labels from Amazon’s DRM-free music store, Sony-BMG, gave in and decided to start selling music on the service without the burden of DRM. That said, Apple’s iTunes, which controls about 70% of the digital music market, still only has DRM-free tracks from one major label (EMI).

That’s less encouraging, since it has now been more than a year and a half since Steve Jobs wrote in a treatise on digital rights management: “If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.”

However, Apple is apparently in talks with the other three major labels about offering DRM-free tracks via iTunes. Those talks may or may not come to anything, but clearly, the labels are open to selling DRM-free music, since they all now do it via companies like Amazon, MySpace, and Napster. What remains to be seen is what the labels want more: the ability to frustrate Apple (whom they don’t want controlling their digital sales channel) or pleasing their customers.

Looked at from that perspective, we’re less confident that DRM will die completely in 2009. Oh, but we’re so close!

13. Reading is Back! We Hope

The stats on reading don’t look good. Our attention spans are rapidly approaching zero, and that’s bad news for books. Or is it? Starting at the end of last year a curious thing happened: eBooks suddenly became cool. The reason? The November 2007 launch of Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader.

Amazon is projected to sell a billion dollars worth of Kindles by 2010. But the real eBook success story of 2008 might be the iPhone. As we reported in October, the iPhone and its cadre of eBook applications, is actually the most popular eBook reader. eBooks are so hot, that even Nintendo wants in on the action, and Sony is planning a huge marketing blitz in airports, train stations, and bookstores in an attempt to capitalize on Kindle shortages.

2008 might be remembered as the year that reading became cool again and books started going digital in earnest.

14. Yahoo! Gets Really Open

When it comes to Yahoo!, 2008 will be remembered in one of two ways: either as the year that the company put the final few nails in its coffin by rejecting Microsoft’s $44.6 billion takeover offer, or as the year that it began to claw its way back to the top by opening itself up to third-party developers.

First, Yahoo! launched SearchMonkey, a platform that allows developers and site owners to use structured data to enhance search results. Then came the Build Your Own Search Service, which opened up Yahoo!’s search infrastructure and allowed developers to create their own search mashups (including powerful custom site search applications).

Most recently, Yahoo! announced a brand new development platform on top of its super popular email application and MyYahoo! start page. Yahoo! is enacting its extremely ambitious plan to rewire their entire network of sites from the inside out to be more open and provide more hooks for developers. Incidentally, that’s close to what I advised that they should do a year and a half ago.

15. Everyone Has their Heads in the Cloud

The buzzword of 2008 was without a doubt, cloud computing. Early in 2008, the aggregate bandwidth of all companies using Amazon’s AWS cloud infrastructure services surpassed that of Amazon’s own sites. Amazon is a top 10 property worldwide, which means that a lot of sites are now putting their faith in Amazon’s back end services.

As is the theme of everything else on the web, if you have success, Google will eventually decide that they too want a piece of the action. 2008 saw Google become interested in offering developers cloud-based infrastructure services. In April they launched App Engine, their own cloud-based infrastructure service. According to venture capitalist Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures, App Engine is the only true cloud computing platform. For now, App Engine only supports the Python language for development, but Google plans to add support for another runtime in 2009.

Microsoft is also getting in on the cloud computing buzz, preparing a Software as a Service release of Office (as we noted earlier in this round up) and talking up their client + cloud future. However, for all the talk of the cloud, desktop apps will remain important. Why? Because the cloud will go down. That’s why companies like Yahoo!, Adobe, Microsoft, and perhaps even Google think that the future of Rich Internet Applications will very much involve the desktop.

Have we missed any big stories? Let us know what you think were the top web tech stories of the year or leave your thoughts about our selections in the comments below.

Josh CatoneJosh Catone
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Before joining Jilt, Josh Catone was the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb, Lead Blogger at SitePoint, and the Community Evangelist at DandyID. On the side, Josh enjoys managing his blog The Fluffington Post.

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