Best and worst products, 1996-2006

ZDNet's editors have examined an awful lot of products over the past ten years. Some brought joy and happiness, while others were dismissed with contempt. Here's our top five in each category.

BEST PRODUCTS, 1996-2006

Search engine

What would we do without Google? The market-leading search engine, founded in 1998, dominates to the extent that it has become a verb ('I'll just Google that'), having seen off the previous search leader, Alta Vista, and kept challengers like Yahoo! and MSN at bay. Initially characterised by an uncluttered interface and a unique search algorithm (PageRank), Google added keyword-linked advertisements in 2000, giving it a viable business model.

Thanks to the company's 'twenty percent' initiative (engineers are urged to spend 20 percent of their time working on individual projects), Google has also developed a wide range of ancillary products, including Gmail, Google Earth, Google Desktop, Google Page Creator, Google Calendar and Google Spreadsheets. Along with the bought-in />Writely word processor, Google's roster of Web-based programs can now provide an (albeit considerably less feature-laden) alternative to many of Microsoft's productivity applications.

Returning to the core search engine, though: we can't think of a single product or service that has had more impact on all of our daily lives over the last ten years.


Intel Centrino
Mobile computing platform

The modern mobile landscape began to take shape in March 2003, when Intel launched a major redesign of its notebook platform, which it called Centrino. When the speeds, feeds and features were digested, and the notebooks tested, even seasoned and cynical Intel-watchers had to admit that the combination of the Israeli-designed Pentium M (Banias) processor, the 855 chipset and the PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection was a winner. Notebook performance and battery life were both improved, and (802.11b) Wi-Fi was both integrated and considerably more user-friendly than before. Intel's mobile platform has since moved on, through Sonoma and Napa, and remains ahead of anything its rival AMD can come up with.

Virtualisation software

There's something peculiarly satisfying about the fact that one of the most important developments in modern computer technology is something that barely exists. Virtualisation is yet another idea nicked from mainframes, and one based on the simple observation that everything in computers is logic or data -- both of which can be expressed in hardware or software. Take something that used to be just hardware -- a processor, for example -- and express it in software, and you can do all those lovely software things with it like duplicate it, back it up, stop it and start it at will. Security attack? Just delete the computer and restore it. And you can multitask it, managing it with far greater precision than you ever could an obdurate chip.

VMWare is the best exemplar of this, not just because its technology works -- although it does, quite magnificently. You can run virtual Windows under Linux, Unix under Windows, Linux under Windows under Linux. The best thing about VMWare is that it's got the hang of giving the basics away while concentrating on the hard problems of manageability and enterprise-level functionality. Thus, one of virtual computing's biggest problems -- getting people to understand what's happening and why it's important -- turns into a matter of cheap experimentation and self-education, while the real money rolls in as the message gets out.

Mac OS X
Operating system

As the huddled masses of Windows users endure the seemingly interminable wait for Vista, it's all too easy to forget that the Apple Mac faithful have had an OS with many of Vista's advantages for some time now. Built on technology developed by NeXT (Steve Jobs's first post-Apple project), Mac OS X 10.0 (codenamed Cheetah) made its debut on the desktop in March 2001, and is now on version 10.4 (Tiger), with 10.5 (Leopard) waiting to pounce. Fancy graphical interface with transparency and other 'eye candy'? Vista's Aero is playing catch-up with OS X's Aqua. Mini-applications that run right on the desktop? For Vista's forthcoming Sidebar and Gadgets, read OS X's well-established Dashboard and Widgets. Advanced desktop search? Mac OS X has had Spotlight since 10.4 Tiger came out in April 2005. We could go on. And on.

RIM BlackBerry
Smartphone with push email

Today's mobile professionals primarily require 'live' email on the move, and RIM (Research in Motion) was the first to supply this, via its BlackBerry smartphones and BlackBerry Enterprise Server software. BlackBerry technology is now found on a variety of third-party devices, and the back-end platform can deliver a range of other enterprise applications and data to the smartphones. For some workers, BlackBerry and its technology has been as life-changing -- and addictive -- as Google.

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Microsoft Smart Display
Wi-Fi-connected tablet-style PC monitor

This product left its mark on everyone who saw it -- so much so that when we discussed what to include in this article, everyone shouted out its name in unison. There was so much wrong with it it's hard to know where to start. Slow, unreliable, insecure, hard to use and expensive, it may be the only peripheral of recent years that could require a complete operating system upgrade in order to run. The basic idea was fine -- a wireless tablet that let you browse around the home or office -- but everything else was disastrously, almost comically, incorrect. It even broke the Health and Safety Act.

Our conclusion then -- and now -- was that a tablet was the wrong medical analogy: given the amount of pain it caused us and the action we hoped Microsoft would take with the whole idea, a suppository was far closer to the mark.

We'd also like to give a special mention to Microsoft's PR agency, Waggener Edstrom, who read our review and interpreted it as a call to action: they tried to 're-educate' our editor with a remarkable campaign of phone calls telling him how wrong he was and how he needed to learn the correct Microsoft way of thinking. Thanks, guys.

Ultra Mobile PC
Small form-factor Tablet PC

Microsoft and Intel's Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) initiative, codenamed Origami, got off to a bad start earlier this year and went downhill from there. First, Microsoft's Web-based teaser campaign rather gave the game away in its source code by identifying Origami as 'the Mobile PC running Windows XP'; then Intel stole more thunder by showing off some concept Origami designs on at its IDF conference in San Francisco, prior to the official launch a few days later at CeBIT in Hanover.

The first UMPC, unveiled at CeBIT, was Samsung's Q1: we weren't impressed with this overpriced, under-featured and under-powered mini-tablet then, and we remained under-whelmed after we'd had one in for a longer evaluation. UMPCs may get better in time, but at the moment the jury's distinctly unimpressed.

64-bit server processor

More than ten years and billions of dollars in the making, this epic HP-Intel co-production has all the hallmarks of Hollywood at its worst. Designed in the beginning to take up the reins from the x86, providing 64-bit supercomputing power as the old-school 32-bit designs ran out of steam, it has instead been a long story of delays, failure and indifference. Although the old designs have improved in every way, Itanium seems stuck in a time-warp of slow development and missed opportunities.

Each year, it has failed to hit performance and sales targets -- sometimes by magnificent amounts -- and each year, Intel turns its sorrowful eyes to the press and murmurs 'why don't you believe us when we say it's getting better?' That's because it isn't, Intel.

The market knows what it wants: 32-bit compatibility, low power, low price, high performance -- and Itanium can deliver just one of these. Perhaps Montecito, the new dual-core Itanium 2 with acres of cache, will be the breakthrough product. Perhaps the rumoured Japanese consortium of mystery supercomputer makers will take the chip off Intel's hands. Or perhaps this year's missed figures will be the iceberg that finally sinks the 'Itanic'.

Symantec Norton AntiVirus

Norton is a revered name among long-time PC users: before his company was bought out by Symantec, Peter Norton supplied the tools that DOS and then Windows users needed to get right under the bonnet of the operating system and tweak it until it purred rather than rattled along.

Symantec seems to have retained the propensity to insert deep hooks into the OS, while slowing down all but the most powerful of PCs and making the software extremely difficult to completely remove from your system. Competing products cost less and catch viruses just as well. Check out the reader ratings and comments for Norton AntiVirus 2005 if you want blow-by-blow accounts.

Microsoft Active Desktop
HTML desktop

This scores a perfect ten on the bad technology scale: it would be useless even if it worked, which it didn't, and worse than useless if it was broken, which it was. But it was never supposed to work.

The idea was that your Windows desktop would constantly be refreshed by incoming information (news tickers, pictures, advertising) whenever the information provider wished it. Broadcasting to your desktop -- you know, the place you're trying to get some work done. But the technology wasn't up to it; these were the days of Windows 98 and dial-up modems, of broken networks and slow computers. It made everything run at a crawl, at least for as long as it took to crash.

So why was it there? Because Microsoft was in court trying to prove that Internet Explorer was an essential part of the operating system that couldn't be removed. It had to come up with something that bolted IE really tightly to Windows, regardless of whether it was a good idea. Or even whether it worked. It didn't -- and until we learned where the tick box was to disable it, neither did we.

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