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Year of the geek

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos hands out his awards for the top people, companies and trends that defined the last dozen months in high tech.

2003 certainly was a year of surprises.

Analysts who began the year predicting tepid growth rejiggered their spreadsheets to account for an unexpected spike in sales. Wi-Fi went from being a cutting-edge concept to a commodity in about 10 days. And the nearly moribund stock option culture made a Lazarus-like comeback, when several companies launched successful initial public offerings that made their employees rich in the process. That was only for starters.

Person of the year
No doubt, it's the overseas engineer. Although major multinational companies have run research and development facilities in China, India and other developing nations for some time, the process accelerated in 2003. Several software companies shifted jobs to India this year.

Intel, which has performed much of its deep math research in Moscow for years, began to invest venture capital in Russian start-ups.

Once again, Apple Computer did what it does best: to create and promote an interesting concept it can't make money with.
Overseas engineers are cheaper to hire, but there are also more of them. China graduates 20 times as many engineers as the United States does, LSI Logic's Wilf Corrigan pointed out.

And overseas engineers buy stuff, too. "By and large, your customers are going to be in Asia," said Ken Lawler, a general partner at Battery Ventures. "There are a lot of smart people (at U.S. institutions like Stanford University) that are going back home to start companies." Unfortunately, as in the United States and Europe, not all of these engineers have jobs, so developing nations also became a source of piracy and viruses.

The Mongol School of Management executive of the year
Genghis Khan created an efficient, extended communications network and established freedom of religion. More importantly, he terrified his enemies.

"I am the punishment of God," he said during the sack of Samarkand. "If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent punishment like me upon you."

The SCO Group's chief executive, Darl McBride, has clearly taken the lesson to heart. The tiny, largely forgotten company has filed a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against IBM and put several hundred companies on notice that they may have to pay royalties to SCO for using Linux.

Job candidate of the year
What is Enrico Pesatori's secret to younger-looking skin? In November, he landed the job as chief executive officer of Linux system seller Penguin Computing. Before that, he held significant jobs at Digital Equipment (before Compaq Computer bought it), Tandem Computers (before Compaq bought it), and Compaq (before Hewlett-Packard bought it).

And before all that, he was chief executive of Zenith Data Systems. (Zenith PCs are still sold in India but are pretty much gone everywhere else.)

"I am the punishment of God," Genghis Khan said during the sack of Samarkand. "If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent punishment like me upon you."
He was also chief of storage company BlueArc and of Olivetti North America. That's seven lives already, Enrico.

Number of the year
119. That's the number of cumulative vulnerabilities reported in Windows 2000 (47) Windows XP (46) and Windows 2000 server (26). Microsoft issued 76 security updates, not including the one that got issued twice. Still, the number of customers actually downloading patches has increased more than 200 percent, according to Microsoft statistics.

Subtle distinction of the year
PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway complained that Oracle chief Larry Ellison's sole intention in the company's hostile bid for its rival was to absorb PeopleSoft's customers and to dismantle its operations. At the same time, PeopleSoft bought J.D. Edwards and started laying people off in October.

Company of the year
Depending on your perspective, Google is already a multibillion-dollar empire or a weak, idealistic ivory tower company that is heading for trouble. Either way, it has a really nice cafeteria.

Best money-losing idea of the year
Once again, Apple Computer did what it does best: to create and promote an interesting concept it can't make money with. The iTunes music service ushered in an era of legal downloads, but the company admitted that it's probably not a profit center. In fact, it's been losing money. Ideally, the service will enable Apple to sell more iPods, but a greater supply of mini-hard drives is opening the player market to others.

Software product of the year
The nod goes to SpamAssassin and other antispam tools. For a while, the spam-filtering software in CNET News.com's offices blocked press releases from Dell. How much more accurate can you get?

Hardware product of the year
The Opteron chip from Advanced Micro Devices walked away with top honors. For decades, the odds were better that AMD founder Jerry Sanders would be felled by lightning attracted to his male jewelry than that AMD would see its chips land in servers. But IBM and Sun have committed to the chip for their corporate hardware. Hats off to its designer, Fred Weber.

For old times' sake
America Online disclosed plans to bundle $299 PCs with Internet service. Back in 1999, Enchilada and a bunch of other start-ups tried this. They all went under.

Reversal of fortune
In 2002, Infineon won a ruling in its legal dispute with rival Rambus that stated that the German memory maker wasn't infringing on Rambus' patents and that Rambus had committed fraud. The court also ordered Rambus to pay millions of dollars in legal fees.

Rambus launched an appeal, and Infineon retained Kenneth Starr--he of Monica Lewinsky fame--to handle the case for it. In January, the appeals court reversed the fraud ruling, cancelled the payment of attorneys' fees and ordered a retrial of the infringement charge.