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Mergers, Dot-Com Resurgence Marked 2004

Vonage In Print News

Mergers, Dot-Com Resurgence Marked 2004

January 3, 2005

By Staff

2004 brought a new sense of optimism to the tech industry — even the beleaguered dot-com field.

Google's (GOOG) initial public offering got investors excited about the Internet again. And with another record holiday season, eBay (EBAY) and other e-commerce sites proved there was plenty of money to be made online.

Still, the tech industry remained cautious. Many firms continued to slash jobs and cut costs. And consolidation was the order of the day.

Two pairs of cell phone service providers agreed to merge.

Oracle's (ORCL) hostile effort to buy PeopleSoft (PSFT) got the green light.

And Symantec (SYMC) announced plans to buy Veritas Software. (VRTS)

Some companies were in a mood to shed businesses rather than acquire them. IBM (IBM) in December said it would sell its personal computer unit to a Chinese firm.

For a company that popularized the notion of a PC, it was a noteworthy move.

Outside the corporate world, technology continued to reshape lifestyles. Web logs took on traditional media during the election season. And the dream of space tourism inched closer to reality.

In the end, we chose these as the 10 biggest tech stories of 2004:

  • 1. Google goes public. Google's name was already a household word long before it mulled an IPO. But as it prepared to go public, the buzz around Google reached a fever pitch.

    The story was hard to resist. Two brash Stanford graduate students had developed a better way to find information online — and now they were about to make billions on it.

    Plus, Google's IPO took a unique path. The company used a Dutch auction, letting investors bid for shares over the Internet. The idea was to maximize the amount Google got for its shares and open the process up to anyone.

    But investors reported trouble qualifying to buy shares, and Google cut its price range for the IPO. It had originally expected $108 to $135, but the final price was set at just $85. Google also made a few gaffes as it adjusted to life in the limelight. For one, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page granted an interview with Playboy that was dangerously close to their pre-IPO quiet period.

    Despite all those problems, Google's stock made a dramatic debut. It vaulted above 100 on its first day of trading Aug. 19 and now trades near 200.

    Moreover, Google's success selling ads online validated the rest of the market. Dot-com frenzy didn't return, but the stigma attached to Internet firms began to fade.

  • 2. Wireless mergers. Two major deals shook the wireless telecom field this year. Cingular Wireless in February agreed to pay $41 billion in cash for AT&T Wireless, the ailing cellular service unit of AT&T. (T)

    The merger, which closed in the fall, made Cingular the No. 1 wireless provider in the U.S.

    But it came with some baggage. AT&T was losing market share amid high customer churn.

    Just as Cingular was stepping up marketing for the combined company, word of another blockbuster deal emerged.

    Sprint (FON) said on Dec. 15 that it would buy Nextel Communications. (NXTL) The deal would make Sprint-Nextel the No. 3 wireless firm after Cingular and Verizon Wireless. (VZ)

    The consolidation could help the cutthroat wireless industry stabilize prices. And it makes it easier for companies to shoulder the massive network upgrades needed to bring new services online.

    The deal-making probably isn't over, analysts say. Some think Verizon could make a bid for Sprint.

  • 3. Oracle gets the OK. It wasn't the biggest merger of the year, but it might have been the most dramatic. After 18 months of spats in courtrooms and the media, Oracle got the green light to buy PeopleSoft.

    In the deal, announced Dec. 13, Oracle would pay $10.3 billion for PeopleSoft, or $26.50 a share. Oracle, best known for its database software and flamboyant CEO Larry Ellison, launched the hostile bid in June 2003. PeopleSoft brass initially stonewalled the deal, threatening Oracle with a poison pill clause.

    The long struggle took a toll on PeopleSoft, jarring customers and investors. And Oracle scored a major victory in September when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the deal wouldn't violate antitrust laws. The European Commission also gave the OK. By December, PeopleSoft leaders caved, saying it was the right decision for shareholders.

    Oracle's move could spark a wave of mergers, as the business software field consolidates down to a small few. The biggest of them all remains the German software giant SAP. (SAP)

  • 4. Phishing and spam. Nine out of 10 e-mails are unsolicited sales pitches, better known as spam. That's up from six out of 10 in 2003.

    A growing number of those take an insidious form: phishing e-mails.

    Phishing messages appear to come from a bank or another business. The idea is to lull people into giving up personal data and then using that information to open up credit cards and commit other fraud.

    These sorts of attacks have cost banks and other businesses some $137 million, according to the research firm TowerGroup. (See related story on A9.)

    There was some good news, though. America Online said in December that reports of spam had fallen 77%.

  • 5. IBM exits PCs. IBM's early-1980s ads, which featured a Charlie Chaplin lookalike, helped introduce the world to personal computers.

    Now, after years of shrinking its PC profile, the company is tramping out of the market altogether.

    IBM announced on Dec. 7 it would sell its PC business to Lenovo for $1.75 billion. Though little known in the U.S., Lenovo is China's No. 1 PC maker and looks to make inroads in the U.S. market.

    Once high-margin items, PCs have turned into commodities in recent years. Dell (DELL) spurred much of the shift, thanks to its direct sales model and ultraefficient manufacturing.

    Without PCs, IBM might be able to better focus on more lucrative areas, such as services and higher-end corporate computing. And it's keeping close ties with Lenovo, so it can continue to package PCs with its other offerings.

  • 6. Voip goes mainstream. VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol, may not be a household term. But the technology, which lets users make cheap phone calls via high-speed Internet connections, made big strides in 2004.

    Startups such as Vonage Holdings attracted hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their Voip services. Vonage plans to have 1 million by the end of 2005.

    Cable companies, such as Cablevision Systems (CVC) and Time Warner, (TWX) began selling Voip calls to their customers. That competition helped push down prices of VoIP. Vonage's plan now costs $24.99 a month for unlimited calls.

    New equipment should also spur the market as phone makers unveil more Voip versions of their models.

  • 7. Electronic ballots. After Florida's problems with punch-card ballots in the presidential election of 2000, electronic voting systems were supposed to cut down on Election Day snafus.

    But as computers were readied for the 2004 election, they brought their own set of headaches.

    Some 30% of ballots in 2004 were paperless compared with 12% in 2000. The systems were praised in many areas and found easier to use than old-fashioned ballots. But the Verified Voting Foundation, an advocacy group, found 900 instances of electronic-voting irregularities.

    Among the complaints: E-voting machines lost votes in North Carolina and miscounted votes in Ohio — the state that pushed President Bush over the top. In New Orleans, they broke down altogether, the group said.

    Another issue: Many electronic-ballot systems don't provide a printed receipt. Election watchers worry the machines would be easy to tamper with, and a lack of any printed record would make fraud harder to spot.

  • 8. Web logs. The staff of the Merriam-Webster dictionary in December named "blog" as its word of the year. And it's no wonder; blogs — short for Web logs — came into their own in 2004.

    The online journals chronicle everything from love lives to movies.

    At center stage last year was political blogs. They breathlessly followed every twist and turn of the presidential election.

    They also kept close watch on traditional media. When CBS News anchor Dan Rather released files related to President Bush's military service, bloggers revealed them to be forgeries.

  • 9. Commercial space travel. Space travel ceased to be a government monopoly in 2004.

    SpaceShipOne — a rocket built with private money — took two flights into suborbital space in the fall. That qualified the ship, backed by a company called SpaceX, for $10 million in prize money.

    The flight provided a dramatic conclusion to the X Prize Foundation's contest, which aimed to spur private space travel with a cash purse. Now SpaceX and other commercial space companies look to make space flights less of a novelty.

    Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group, plans to invest $25 million in a space venture called Virgin Galactic. It aims to sell commercial suborbital flights for about $200,000.

  • 10. Shift toward electronics. PC makers such as Apple Computer (AAPL) and Dell are moving beyond computers and into the lucrative field of consumer electronics.

    Witness the Apple iPod. It continued its explosive growth in 2004, with sales accelerating as the year wore on.

    Introduced in October 2001, it's expected to sell 10 million to 12 million units in 2005. That would put it on a faster growth path than that of Sony's (SNE) original Walkman in the 1980s, analysts say.

    Apple's Macintosh computers still have just a sliver of overall PC sales. But that appears to be less important to investors. They bid up Apple's shares nearly 200% in 2004.

    Dell, meanwhile, pushed further into televisions, home theaters and speakers.

    It looks to apply the low-cost model it honed in PCs to home electronics markets.

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