Mice, tablet, wireless dominate year
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- It was a year that separated the men from the mice -- literally and figuratively.
Tech economy survivors braved the storm equipped with all-in-one gadgets, a determined push for wireless Internet connections and the introduction of widespread electronic voting and slick new tablet PCs.
In science, researchers shook up humanity's family tree with a skull that might illuminate the earliest chapter in human evolutionary history. They also mapped the genetic differences between mice and men, provided breathtaking views of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope and captured the public's imagination with the remote possibility that the icy planet Mars may have once been hospitable to life.
Scientists, politicians and the public continued wrestling with climate changes around the planet. A report released at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union said a widespread warming trend is melting Greenland's ice sheet, reducing the ice across the Arctic Ocean and threatening to alter human habitats. The changes may be a result of natural variability, but man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases could also be to blame, scientists said.
"We're providing another piece to the puzzle figuring out whether global climate change is actually occurring," said Anthony Arendt of the University of Alaska. "Finding more evidence of climate change occurring affects everyone because the entire climate system is linked together."
Drier conditions were of particular concern to residents of the western United States, where years of drought contributed to the devastating wildfires early in the year and fueled the battle for water among rapidly growing cities.
New discoveries on Earth and in space
Water also was the focus of intense debate in March, when the first data sent back from the Odyssey spacecraft's mission to Mars showed that the planet has significant amounts of water in the form of ice. Could Mars have once been a warm, wet place hospitable to life? Reports released later in the year said that was unlikely, but scientists did allow that life may have gained a toehold below the surface of the planet, in spots warm enough to melt the ice that peppers its soil.
Another space story that received a lot of attention concerned the clear pictures of the universe being sent back by a revitalized Hubble Space Telescope. Two spacewalking astronauts exited the Columbia space shuttle in March and gave the telescope major eye surgery. When they were done, the telescope boasted a ten-fold increase in optical capacity. New Hubble pictures helped astronomers discover different types of black holes that could shed light on how galaxies form, an elegant nebula that looks uncannily like a rose, and a galaxy about 120,000 light-years across that is slightly larger than our own Milky Way.
Back on Earth, a skull about 7 million years old found in the African desert rattled long-held beliefs about human evolution when scientists announced its discovery in July. The Toumai skull dates from the period when the human lineage diverged from the chimpanzee branch. Scientist speculated that the skull, which was assigned a new genus and species, could be a common ancestor of humans and chimps, but it could also be related to an extinct branch that's neither chimp nor human.
"This is a very exciting find. It expands our knowledge of early evolution," said Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History. "Obviously the history of human evolution has been one of constant evolutionary experimentation -- new kinds of humans being produced, exploring new ways to be a hominid and undergoing a lot of extinction as well."
Something scientists finally were able to understand this year is what makes a mouse different from a man. Not that much, as it turns out. The rodent's full genetic sequence was published in November, showing that of the 30,000 genes that mice and men each have, only about 300 are unique to each organism.
"The mouse sequence provides, for the first time, an ability to determine what matters and what doesn't in the human genome," said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genomic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tiny technology all the rage
On the tech front, tiny all-in-one gadgets, almost as small as mice, enticed consumers to update their cell phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). This was the year of the wireless communications devices, including the T-Mobile Sidekick ($249), which combined a phone, e-mail, instant messaging, Web browsing and a keyboard in a unit that could fit in a front pocket.
The gadget offered a glimpse into a future where wireless connections to the Internet would be the rule and not the exception. Alongside new Tablet PCs, which are more portable than laptops and allow users to write on the screen, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates introduced a number of new wireless devices late in the year. The gadgets included an alarm clock that displayed weather and traffic information and refrigerator magnets that showed the time and sports scores.
All of it is part of a digital future where "we'll think about personal computing in a different way. It's not just sitting in front of that desktop PC," Gates said.
A big part of that future could center around Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity), which lets computers use radio waves instead of cables to connect to the Internet at high speeds.
Wi-Fi was embraced in a big way by the corporate world in December when AT&T, IBM and Intel announced plans to create a nationwide network, whose goal would be to have 20,000 to 50,000 Wi-Fi access points in 10 major metropolitan areas by the end of 2003. Hotels, airports, retail locations, and other gathering places would all theoretically provide wireless Web access and Internet service providers could sell wireless access to their customers.
The network combined with Intel's expected inclusion of wireless Internet functions in its microprocessors next year should revolutionize our lives and increase sales, Internet analysts said.
Techno toys and techno voting
One area of American life that underwent significant transformation this year was voting. A record number of U.S. counties -- one-fifth by some estimates -- used electronic voting machines during November's elections.
The shift was prompted by the voting irregularities in Florida during the last presidential election and funded partly by $3.9 billion Congress set aside for states to overhaul their voting systems. Despite a few glitches, the machines seemed to deliver on the promise of making voting more foolproof.
Companies that make electronic voting machines experienced an upsurge in sales as did the video game industry, which seemed immune to recession. Revenues continued to grow as Playstation 2, Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox duked it out for market dominance.
Rapid advances in graphics and memory allowed designers to come up with games that are more realistic. Some also are bloodier and more sexually charged to appeal to adult players.
Industry watchers say the big money is expected to be in online gaming, which was widely marketed this year and which industry watchers expect will take off big in 2004 or 2005. As the next generation of consoles rolls out and high-speed connections reach more homes, experts said gaming market revenues could rival movie box office sales.
But all of the year's developments would pale in comparison to what is coming, according to Internet pioneer Esther Dyson.
"In terms of really big things, it's going to be biotech, nothing to do with computers. And I think we all know that. But I'm not giving up on (information technology)," Dyson told Computerworld magazine.