This year's headlines tell the story of a land rush, of a kind not seen since expansion in the American West. Then, pioneers and opportunists invaded the virgin fields to make their fortunes.
Today vendors, companies and aspirational users are the pioneers, the new territory is cyberspace, and profit in ecommerce and services is the fortune sought.
Service with a smile
In 1999, everyone was chasing the same thing: money, particularly the ecommerce dollar. Spring saw the long-awaited 12th annual Holway Report showing IT and services spending in 1998 at record levels.
The software and services market grew a record 24% in 1998, and was worth £16.4 billion. Outsourcing projects were partly responsible for the growth, but hidden within those figures were the green shoots of ecommerce from early adopters.
Ecommerce learning curve
That trickle became a flood by year's end, as ecommerce fever swept the UK. In January, ecommerce mostly involved US web sites. But in the closing months of 1999, a rash of dot coms on everything from books to share dealing were blitzing us with adverts.
It wasn't that easy, as Egg, Boo.com and Halifax discovered. Boo's launch was repeatedly postponed; Egg's service wavered and stumbled on security, as did Halifax's online share dealing service. A combination of complex in-house systems development, unforeseen IT problems and lack of experience were all blamed.
Researcher IDC said in September worldwide ecommerce revenues would total $1.3 trillion by 2002. Europe trails the US, however, and is in danger of falling further behind because of its legacy infrastructures and outdated business attitude.
PCs to lose importance
Analysts also declared the PC would diminish in importance. They predicted that mobile phones using wireless application protocol (Wap) and handheld devices would become the primary Internet access device.
Meanwhile, TV threatened to further displace the PC. In September, British Interactive Broadcasting launched Open, an interactive digital TV channel offering business-to-consumer ecommerce via a TV set instead of the desktop.
As organisations grappled with the Internet, it became clear that existing pricing and licensing models were impractical to administer and left users out of pocket.
A crusade to bring down prices was launched, directed particularly at Oracle and Microsoft. They relented with, respectively, a new single global price list, and new licensing mechanisms for thin client software.
Neither company banished pricing as an issue, however. Oracle subsequently admitted that 20% of customers would fall through its new price model. Gartner, which maintained a steady attack on Microsoft throughout the year, warned that the software giant's prices would spiral, increasing by 50% in the next three years.
The pricing issue was seized on by the European Informatics Market (Eurim), a cross-party/industry group. It lobbied the Office of Fair Trading, the Department of Trade and Industry, the European Union (EU) and telecoms regulator Oftel over software and telecoms prices in the UK. As regards telecoms at least, Eurim can easily point to its efforts being justified: the EU reported the UK's leased line prices among the highest in Europe.
Local loop opened up
For BT, which operates most of those leased lines in the UK, this marked the end of a poor year. Oftel director general Dave Edmonds announced the end of BT's 88-year near-monopoly of the local loop in 2001, and cheers went up in anticipation of cheaper broadband services.
For some, however, deregulation was not enough. By November, some MPs claimed BT was delaying getting the UK connected, and called for the giant to be broken up.
BT wasn't the only major supplier to take a beating. US district judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his findings in the Department of Justice's anti-trust case against Microsoft.
He branded Microsoft a monopoly which had kept software prices high, killed competition, bullied the software industry and hindered the development of technology.
A stunned chief executive, Bill Gates, who decided to give evidence on video throughout the trial rather than appear in court, claimed all he was guilty only of innovation in IT.
Linux went from strength to strength. There was backing from IBM and Oracle, enhancement for the desktop, the successful embedded Linux roadshow, and increased customer take-up of the open source Unix as a server operating system. IDC now expects Linux's share of the server market to reach 18% by 2002. Big 'but': doubts linger about Linux's ability as a high-end server OS.
Dark days for ERP
In stark contrast to the success of Linux was the misery endured by vendors of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Having milked large installations SAP, PeopleSoft, Baan and JD Edwards saw revenues down or below predictions.
PeopleSoft went into the red, and underwent a senior management reshuffle.
The Electronic Communications Bill was born, setting a framework for eservices, but without the controversial key escrow encryption. Prime Minister Tony Blair launched his initiative for joined up government, and appointed an eminister, Patricia Hewitt, and an eEnvoy, Alex Allan. Their brief: to drive electronic services and IT throughout government.
Traditional-style IT projects fared less well. Millions of pounds of tax payers' money was written off amid cancellations and overrun projects.
Half of the £1 billion Pathway project was cancelled, and Siemens' Passport Office project degenerated into a fiasco.
For once, it was the public who suffered instead of IT directors, as the summer saw passport office queues and delays because the systems weren't running in time. Still, Siemens won an increase in its fees for the project.
Vendors were criticised by a government watchdog over their handling of the bug. Action 2000 said vendors had misinformed users over whether or not their software was compliant. Microsoft and Lotus were singled out, for repeatedly updating their software and each time claiming it was millennium-compliant.
"Businesses have been lured into a false sense of security," said Action 2000 director general Don Cruickshank.
The chances for a crisis-free New Year, in the UK at least, are good, according to the Computing year 2000 confidence index.
Particularly as that other bogey date - 9 September 1999 - passed without any major reported incidents.
Pain and redundancies
Fortunes were mixed for services companies. IBM Global Services basked in the glory of $29 billion (£18bn) revenues, while EDS - with $16.9 billion (£10.6bn) revenues worldwide - suffered the pain of reorganisation.
Chief executive Dick Brown had to lay off more than 8,000 staff to attain his goal of reducing operating costs of $1 billion (£600m) by 2000.
ICL fell out with the government over the Pathway project, shed up to 200 jobs and forked out £3 million after losing a legal case brought by South-West Water over a failed billing system.
Management consultants were also shaken up. A Forrester Research report in October said these giants were too slow for the Internet age, their place to be taken by smaller, web-focused consultants. By year's end, PricewaterhouseCoopers had cut 200 staff for inadequate Internet skills.
1999 was the year of the virus. Melissa, Worm and ExploreZip ripped through email systems disguised as attachments, causing systems outages.
In December, Melissa's 'father' - New Jersey programmer David Smith - pleaded guilty to causing $80 million damage worldwide. He faces up to five years in prison. As the wired world expands, expect more viruses to affect organisations next year.
What's ahead? The land rush isn't over. Prospectors staked their claims in 1999, but next year will weed out the weaklings. Online competition will grow, and doubtless new dangers will surprise us all.
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