Oh, Wal-Mart. You are so easy to hate. What with your union-busting, mom-and-pop-killing, big box awfulness, who wouldn't hate you? It would be all to easy for me to come in here and just give you an F and everyone would agree with me and we could all walk hand-in-hand into the sunset, hating Wal-Mart. And while I do have my Wal-Mart issues, there's no denying that it's made some pretty solid moves in the tech world this year, and no matter how much I hate to admit it, I need to give Wal-Mart at least some props.
This was the year that DRM stopped cramping online music stores, and that's in some part due to Wal-Mart's insistence on selling DRM-free tunes. Together with Amazon, it's one of two major online retailers selling MP3 files. And while the MP3 store is still pretty lousy, Wal-Mart's push to have the last major-label holdouts drop DRM will be good for us all. If that happens, Wal-Mart's influence will at least have something to do with it.
This year has also seen the prices of HD DVD and Blu-ray players drop significantly, thanks in part to Wal-Mart's pressures. Wal-Mart's size gives them huge influence over the industry, and earlier this year when it went around that Wal-Mart was pushing for cheapo HD DVD players it gave the then-suffering HD DVD camp a shot in the arm. The push for cheaper players makes us happy.
In addition to using its influence to bring down pricing in the HD disc war, it also used it to try and break up Microsoft's Windows dominance by introducing a $200 Linux gPC to their generally non-techy clientele. It was a ballsy move, one clearly motivated by desire to sell cheaper computers over the desire to stick it to Microsoft, but stick it to Redmond it did. There's no bigger retailer out there who has the power to introduce an alternate OS to the masses and make it seem friendly, and that's just what Wal-Mart did. (Of course, we think the reason the gPC sold out so fast was because of Linux fanboys in search of cauldrons for their potions, but you never know.)
Things aren't all forward-thinking at Wal-Mart, though. They still do a lot of the stuff that's earned them a horrible reputation for years now. They refuse to carry movies and CDs that they deem "inappropriate," at times arbitrarily pulling products from shelves—or at least that's how it seems. Consumers should get to choose what they want to buy; they don't need retailers to act as babysitters and decide what is and isn't appropriate.
As for the brutal labor practices, there's still a lot we think is totally uncool to, but to be fair, Wal-Mart is introducing a much-improved health care plan next month. Still, don't look for the reputation of Wal-Mart retail jobs to get a lot better anytime soon. Everybody knows the store is full of miserable employees half-assedly serving miserable customers.
So kudos, Wal-Mart, for being more forward-thinking in the tech department than I would have ever expected. Keep it up! When the gigantic, faceless companies that make up the RIAA and the MPAA want anti-consumer practices to become the norm, we need other gigantic, faceless companies to stand up to them, and if it's gonna be you I'll take it. And if you're gonna make next-gen disc players cheaper for everyone, I'll thank you for that. But I'll still never set foot in one of your stores. I'll admit to cautiously admiring some of your moves from afar but your reduced letter grade is because of the human cost: you really should treat your employees better.
Final Grade: C