2011 was a year of incredible highs and incredible lows. We say that every year, of course, but 2011 felt different: many staffers at The Verge would argue that it's been the craziest, most drama-filled twelve months in their careers. It was a year of huge wins, huge losses, as well as u-turns and upsets that we couldn't have seen coming even if we tried.
Trying to neatly wrap up a full year of amazing products, blockbuster acquisitions (and would-be acquisitions), power shifts, and industry-changing announcements into a single article is an enormously challenging task, but let's give it a shot — and let's take a quick glance at some of the headlines we're expecting in the year ahead.
Stories of the year
RIM in turmoil
2011 was the year that reality caught up with RIM — or at least it was the year that its investors and customers finally began to notice. How did the company come to this pass? Many blame the two co-CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Laziridis, who are awaiting word from a so-called "independent committee" on whether their unique management structure can survive. Strange missteps like not fully vetting the trademark for their original name for BlackBerry 10 (BBX) and apparently the same on BBM have added to the distrust.
The question now is whether it's too late for the company to catch up
While RIM has seen success in emerging markets like Indonesia and Latin America, its offerings in 2011 were either flops (the PlayBook) or evolutions on previous BlackBerry products instead of the revolutionary change the company needed to stay competitive. After coasting for years on the strength of its enterprise lead and BBM-loving customers, Android and iOS combined to take the wind out of RIM's sails and really hurt its marketshare in the US. Meanwhile, bad decisions made in years past began to haunt the company — the PlayBook launched to anemic sales at best and its next-gen computing platform is more than half a year away from launching on phones. Until very recently, RIM refused to publicly acknowledge that it had fallen behind — the question now is whether it's too late for the company to catch up.
Rise of the tablet
The trickle of tablets began in 2010 with the iPad and the Galaxy Tab, but in 2011 the floodgates opened. The Motorola Xoom headlined the dozens upon dozens of tablets announced at CES in January — it was the first tablet running Android 3.0, the first version of Android designed with tablets in mind. It may have been a "crash landing" for Google that didn't quite live up to expectation, but it was still an improvement on previous phone-optimized versions. No sooner had we gotten used to the Xoom, though, than the BlackBerry PlayBook broke cover (not that anyone really cared). Then it was the Acer Iconia Tab, the ViewSonic ViewPad, the MSI WindPad, the Kno, the eFun NextBook, and literally countless others. And that was all before January 15th.
The torrent barely slowed over the next 11 and a half months, though the quality increased considerably — the iPad 2 continued Apple's reign at the top of the tablet world, the HP TouchPad debuted with great promise (but a tragic saga), and the Galaxy Tab's lineup of successors stepped up Samsung's game too. Then came the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, two devices that suggest the cost of good tablets may be dropping considerably from the $500 price set by the iPad. There's still no flagship iPad alternative, (the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime may be the closest thing we've seen yet), but that could change: as we head into 2012's CES, we're expecting a deluge of tablets that should be bigger, better, and a lot more affordable than this year's.
LTE goes mainstream
Following launches in 2010 by MetroPCS and Verizon, LTE really took off this year. Verizon's 4G network now covers over 200 million people and is on its way to a 100 percent CDMA overlay in 2013. As a result, AT&T has been spurred into an aggressive rollout of its own. While new wireless networks almost always launch exclusively in modems designed for road warriors and tech diehards, Verizon went mainstream rapidly: most of the carrier's top-tier smartphones now support LTE out of the box.
Microsoft buys Skype
Microsoft's $8.5 billion all-cash acquisition of Skype from an investment firm, announced in May of this year, represented the single biggest purchase in Redmond's history — a blockbuster deal by any measure, undoubtedly driven up by the wide variety of big companies for which Skype would've probably made a good fit (Facebook and Google, just to name a couple).
Given Skype's dominance in the VoIP space, it's easy to see why a company like Microsoft might've taken a keen interest in it — tight integration with both Windows and Xbox is an inevitability, and it instantly buys the company one of the largest voice footprints in the world outside of the traditional telecom providers. And more than anything, all eyes are on the mobile division to see exactly how deeply Skype gets weaved into Windows Phone next year.
Megapixel counts aren't changing, but image quality is improving by leaps and bounds
Cellphone cameras come into their own
Technically, we'd say the Nokia N8 started the trend last year, but 2011 made it stick — this was the year that consumers and OEMs started taking cellphone cameras seriously. With miniature backside illuminated sensors and wide f/2.2 lenses, the HTC Amaze 4G and myTouch 4G Slide made T-Mobile the carrier of choice for Android sharpshooters in the US, while the iPhone 4S's five-element f/2.4 lens and image stabilization gave iOS users even less reason to carry a point-and-shoot camera. (Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc and Nokia's Lumia 800 also have pretty good cameras, if you're buying unlocked.) While we're not fans of the trend away from hardware camera buttons on our phones, software has also steadily improved, with Windows Phone 7 and Android 4.0 each nodding to the importance of the cameraphone. With the popularity of multimedia sharing these days and the rise of LTE, we figure it's only a matter of time before smartphones become humanity's primary means of documenting our achievements.
PlayStation Network falls to hackers
In hindsight, the chronology of events makes a lot more sense. On April 19th, hackers manage to infiltrate Sony's network, and before all iI's said and done, compromise 77 million PlayStation Network accounts. The breach is notable not only for its size and the amount of information obtained (real names, addresses, unencrypted passwords, and potentially 12.3 million credit cards — although so far no one has reported credit card fraud as a result of the breach), but also for the public response. Sony didn't publicly acknowledge the incident for a week after its defenses had been felled, even though it had already shut down servers days prior. The public reaction was decidedly negative, and various government bodies even stepped in to investigate the whole ordeal.
In the end, after a few more hiccups, the PlayStation Network was restored about a month later. Sony offered new "Welcome Back" incentives to rejoining, free ID theft protection for worried customers, and a personal apology from CEO Howard Stringer. A security executive position was created, and hopefully lessons were learned by both Sony and all major companies abroad.
Spotify, at long last
After years of waiting, Spotify finally launched in the US this July, and just a few months later plugged into the Facebook firehose with other streaming services like Rdio and Mog. All three benefitted from the partnership and now offer free options, so you'll probably continue to see what your friends are listening to in your Facebook Ticker as the Open Graph keeps expanding. With the shift to cloud storage and online music services, it's been a great year for music fans with affordable subscription services offering deep archives and decent mobile apps, and even Google and Apple are getting into the game, albeit slowly.
Patent wars: Google decides to buy Motorola Mobility
Think you understand exactly how Android works within the Open Handset Alliance? Get ready to rethink it all over again, after Google announced in August that it intended to purchase Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Google says that it would operate the smartphone manufacturer as a separate arm of the company that would remain largely independent — leading many to believe that it was largely about acquiring more patents to guard against Apple.
Even now, there are still more questions than answers about what the acquisition means for the Android ecosystem. Will Google really keep Motorola's hardware division at arm's length so that it's on a level playing field compared to other Android manufacturers? Are Motorola's mobile patents really good enough to compete with Apple's? Will we be talking about "true" Android devices based on Motorola hardware — with all others relegated to a second tier — at this time next year? Only time will tell as we wait for regulators to approve the acquisition.
The web evolves
2011 found Facebook laying the groundwork for next year with a Timeline profile upgrade pending for 800 million users and the Open Graph launching in earnest sometime in 2012. The latter will let developers add their own verbs for sharing of activities, like "watch," "eat," and more. 2011 wasn't just preparation, though; Zuckerberg and company rolled out a unified app design across major mobile platforms, finally launched an official iPad app, and followed Google+'s Circles with new smart lists for easier micromanagement of your friends.
Google launched a mid-year effort to redesign nearly all of its services, from Docs and Gmail to YouTube and the ubiquitous Google Bar. Following its June launch, Google+ sharing options got crammed into seemingly everything, angering a posse of passionate Google Reader users in the process. How this primacy for Google+ got pushed through a company that's never been known for unified services should make for a riveting yarn if it ever comes to light.
While its new Activity log features haven't been an enormous hit with users, Twitter continued to grow and got a rush of new sign-ups with its deep integration into iOS 5. A December redesign standardized designs across mobile apps and the web, but downplayed many power user functions like lists and search in favor of "more accessible" Home, Connect, and Discover options.
Unabashed local deal enthusiasm, stirred up by the great Groupon hype, burdened your inbox in 2011 as everyone from Google, Facebook, and The New York Times to upstarts like Gilt, Yipit, LivingSocial tried to capitalize on the frenzy. Plus, we saw the growth of curate-the-web services like Pinterest, Gimmebar, Stellar, mlkshk, and to an extent, Tumblr.
A fully functional Gmail app for iOS turned out to be one of the year's biggest duds
Apps and content
The release of what would be the holy grail for many iOS users, a fully functional Gmail app to compete with Android's, turned out to be one of the year's biggest duds — even excluding the botched launch — and Gmail for iPhone and iPad still doesn't have multiple account support. Otherwise, mobile continued to mature this year: Flipboard, finally on iPhone, helps make sense of your news and various social networks, while Instagram's success suggests that you don't have to recreate a new all-encompassing Google+ or Facebook-style service to build a sizable, and rabid, userbase. Twitter snatched up TweetDeck, and there simply hasn't been much innovation in the client space since Twitter limited third-party developers in March. While cable cutting isn't a reality yet, new TV apps from Comcast, Time Warner, HBO, and ESPN popped up to move your cable subscription from just your TV to your devices.
Qwikster — need we say more?
And then there was Netflix. Following a stratospheric rise over the past several years, the poster child for Blockbuster's downfall finally stumbled. Reed Hastings' company continued shifting through new redesigns across its web, game console, and mobile device presences, and emerged from the impossible-to-spell Qwikster debacle — a proposed spinoff to handle the DVD-by-mail service — to announce a future Arrested Development season for 2013.
Although it's been on devices since 2008, Android "grew up" this year with the announcement and release of Android 4.0 — better known to many by its confectionery name, Ice Cream Sandwich. It's an important milestone for Andy Rubin's team at Google for many reasons: it seeks to unify the phone / tablet schism caused by Honeycomb, it represents the platform's first major UI overhaul, and it's the first version of Android with heavy influence from design guru Matias Duarte — the guiding force behind webOS's unique design and a former teammate of Rubin's at Danger.
Samsung versus Apple
Apple set off a billion-dollar game of international chess in April when it sued Samsung — one of its biggest suppliers — for "slavishly copying" the design and functionality of the iPhone and iPad. The original suit was filed in the US, but Samsung quickly countered by going international, filing responses in courts around the world and accusing Apple of infringing a host of patents on wireless standards and technologies. (Samsung also demanded to see the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 at one point, but the judge shot that idea down.) Nothing's settled yet, but Apple's so far forced Samsung to alter the design of the Galaxy Tab 10.1N and make changes to the functionality of its software to keep products on the market, and 2012 promises even more fireworks between these two giants of mobile.
Was there a greater soap opera in 2011?
AT&T tries (and fails) to buy T-Mobile
Was there a greater soap opera in 2011? If it had been approved, AT&T's $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom would've arguably represented the biggest shift in the American telecommunications industry since the breakup of AT&T in the early 1980s; the combined company would've easily leapfrogged current number one carrier Verizon Wireless by nearly 30 million subscribers. Fearing a reduction in competition, public outcry against the deal was vocal, to say the least — and once both the FCC and Department of Justice sided against AT&T's plan, it was effectively dead. The companies formally called off the deal in early December, costing AT&T a "break-up fee" of some $3 billion in cash to Deutsche Telekom plus spectrum licenses valued at roughly $1 billion.
Kickstarter: grassroots project funding explodes
After a breakout year in 2010, Kickstarter became the de facto standard for crowd-funded technology products in 2011. Founded in 2009, the tiny startup announced a million backers in October of this year who have combined to pledge support exceeding $100 million to a myriad of projects both serious and whimsical, and spanning a broad spectrum of creative endeavours. Notably, it took 16 months to attract the first 200,000 backers to Kickstarter while the last 200,000 backers arrived in just the last three months, all of whom are helping to usher in an era of product development uncompromised by focus groups and committees to the delight of designers and engineers the world over.
Nokia jumps from a "burning platform"... to a platform under construction
Freshman Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, took a leap from the company's burning platform in early 2011 and into the loving arms of his former boss, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The move away from Symbian (and its MeeGo successor) to Microsoft's Windows Phone OS was greeted with howls of protests from Nokians. Undeterred, the affable Mr. Elop emerged with the company's Lumia series of Windows Phone handsets in October. Nokia followed up the European Lumia launch with a surprisingly quick return to the US on T-Mobile in December. While critically acclaimed, it's still too early to tell if the Lumia series has managed to move the needle on Nokia's plummeting smartphone market share. CES in January will be a critical milestone for the company as it unleashes operation Rolling Thunder onto a US public that fondly remembers its first Nokia handsets while playfully swiping at iPhone 4Ses and Galaxy Nexi.
The $99 TouchPad phenomenon
While HP's slow, meditated murder of webOS was painful for everybody watching, there was one great thing that came out of it: $99 TouchPads. In a bid to offload inventory of a futureless (and already relatively unsuccessful) product, HP slashed the price of its once flagship tablet. What was a middling product at its original $499 was an absolute steal at $99 a few weeks later, and every retailer that participated was inundated with orders (many of them eventually canceled, as HP ran out of inventory).
What was a middling product at its original $499 was an absolute steal at $99 a few weeks later
The sale was so popular that HP decided to fire up the production line again for one last run to meet the demand. It was an odd gesture, given HP's eventual abandonment of webOS, committing the code to open source. What did come out of it was an excellent piece of ubiquitous hardware for the hacker community to play with, and perhaps a launching board for whoever takes on the webOS project in the years to come.
Enter the Ultrabook
This was the year Intel finally accepted that netbooks were killed by the tablet (okay, maybe it was a secret admission), but Chipzilla also decided that what people really wanted was thin, light, affordable, and solid-performing laptops. Intel's idea of the ultrabook was introduced back in June and in the early fall we saw the first wave of the ultrathin laptops from Acer, Lenovo, Asus, and Toshiba. None of them were able to take on the MacBook Air with the right balance of design and pricing, but they certainly set a new bar in terms of speed and battery life for Windows laptops.
Steve Jobs: 1955 - 2011
One of the biggest stories of 2011 was sadly one of loss: Apple CEO Steve Jobs passed away in October after a long battle with cancer. He left behind a legacy of revolutionary devices like the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and MacBook Air, and a company that ranks among the most successful and best-managed ever to exist. He also left behind an authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, which revealed a side of Jobs most had never seen — a man who doted on his family and took vacations to Hawaii. The book has come under justifiable criticism for skimming over large parts of Apple and Jobs' stories, but ultimately it stands as the final record of a remarkable life.
In true Jobs fashion, however, that record may yet have some surprises left: Jobs made one last appearance on the Apple keynote stage to introduce iCloud, which he called the culmination of a ten-year journey to "get rid of the file system." He also told Isaacson that he'd finally "cracked" the solution to reinventing the TV — setting the stage for Jobs to reinvent one last market even after he's gone.
Disappointments of the year
The consumer electronics industry, not unlike every other industry, is rife with terrible products. Most of those, however, we expect to be bad. Then there are the disappointments, a smaller set in the group of bad products. These are the letdowns, the products whose hype was loud and at times felt like it might end up being deserved — usually from larger companies who should know better. We expected a lot more from each and every one of you this year.
The BlackBerry PlayBook
There are plenty of disappointments to choose from when it comes to RIM's performance in 2011, but most of them can probably be summed up with the BlackBerry PlayBook. RIM's bullheaded refusal to recognize its dire situation was most apparent in that bellwether device. Boring hardware, unfinished software, a muddled OS development story, an even more muddle third-party development story, and above all a lack of sales all added up to a perfect storm of missed opportunities for the PlayBook. The tablet didn't even launch with an email client, RIM's core strength, and its future development as the base operating system for all upcoming RIM products is not clear at all. Even the name of the OS — first the PlayBook OS based on QNX, then BBX, then BlackBerry 10 (at some point in the future) — wasn't fully thought through. It's no understatement to say that the lackluster PlayBook reception seriously damaged the company's image. While there are still BlackBerry fanatics clutching their QWERTY keyboards tightly, it's with an air of schadenfreude instead of elitism — the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
With version 3.0, Android was supposed to become a major player in the tablet world. The operating system was redesigned to work on larger screens, and many of the critical apps like Gmail and the browser were overhauled as well. But Honeycomb proved to be buggy and laggy, and in places just seemed unfinished. Even more troubling was the fact that the developer community didn't exactly leap to build apps for Honeycomb tablets — lack of good third-party apps that look good on a larger screen continues to be one of the biggest problems Android slates face. Even with a ton of hardware options, from the Xoom to the Galaxy Tab, no Honeycomb tablet ever posed a real threat to the iPad's supremacy. Almost as soon as Honeycomb was released, rumors of the next version began to surface: Ice Cream Sandwich would be the Android version to finally unite the different screen sizes on a single operating system, and bring Android tablets to maturity. We're still waiting on that, but it looks like the best-case scenario for Honeycomb is that it turns out to be the Windows Vista of Android — an unfortunate stopgap while a better version is finished.
AMD can't find its footing
Advanced Micro Devices was poised to have its best year ever, or so it seemed, as the company mashed its CPU and GPU expertise into the AMD Fusion chips, and appeared poised to launch a raft of desirable netbook alternatives capable of smooth HD video playback and basic gaming at a low price point. That's when just about everything that could go wrong, did. Apple's iPad ignited a tablet fervor that poached the low end of the laptop market, and Intel's Sandy Bridge chips took the rest, making their way into the MacBook Air and starting an ultrabook initative that further threatens to push AMD off the map. Worse, the company's Bulldozer desktop architecture fell flat, failing to deliver the performance increases that were promised, particularly in single-threaded applications. The result? A lot of soul-searching, which included cutting 1,400 jobs, rebranding DDR3 memory, and public admission from AMD that it can't compete with Intel anymore. It's not all bad news, though: the former ATI team still puts out some pretty decent graphics cards.
Thunderbolt lacks thunder
If you had hoped that 2011 would herald the year when we would finally see a single port for everything you plug into your computer, we're sad to report that it wasn't even close to happening. While Thunderbolt launched on Macs and a smattering of PCs, the new standard still has yet to gain industry-wide acceptance — even though affordable-looking docks have been demonstrated — and our periperhals are still a mix of USB, DisplayPort, and others. Intel will try to make another go of it in 2012, but you should still plan on having a full row of disparate ports on your computer for the foreseeable future.
The best-case scenario for Honeycomb is that it turns out to be the Windows Vista of Android
It should've been a great year for Nintendo
Dual-screen devices don't cut the mustard
At face value, the idea of a two-screened device isn't new — even the original Motorola RAZR used a separate display for when the clamshell is closed. But there seems to be something fascinating about two screens placed side by side, like pages in an open book, as a surprising number of two-screened devices came out this year. None, however, really made an impact. Let's go through the list: the Acer Iconia Touchbook was a bulky prototype not ready for primetime, the Kyocera Echo and LG DoublePlay smartphones were disappointing attempts to stand out in the entry-level segment, and the Sony Tablet P never did make its US launch and certainly hasn't made waves in the UK.
It's partly chicken-and-egg, with most of these products not having a compelling app suite — and who's going to make apps for a niche product that runs platforms design with single screens in mind? Then there's the other defining aspect of these phones: poor build quality. The Nintendo DS, the massively successful exception to this rule, was a whole new platform requiring developers to think in twos from day one. The Microsoft Courier, a concept we heard about in design pitches, is often touted by fans of the industry as the ideal dual-screen device. And as we've said before, its legacy is that of a fairy tale — it'll never have to withstand the scrutiny of real world use. Expect more than few companies to try their luck with dual-screen devices next year, but don't get your hopes up. Speaking of the DS...
The 3DS gets off to a slow start
It should've been a great year for Nintendo. The Wii had just become the best-selling Nintendo console of all time, surpassing the NES's 67 million unit sales figure (it ultimately ended 2010 at 84.64 million worldwide). The DS, meanwhile, had become the all-time best-selling portable console in March, surpassing 128.9 million units and closing out the year at just under 145 million (all figures lifetime-to-date). The 3DS had been announced rather oddly — first as a press release, then months later at E3, with some strong verbal support of third parties. So, what happened in 2011?
Well, the 3DS launch didn't go quite as well as expected, especially considering it had considerable mindshare by merit of being the DS successor. Following a public apology, CEO Satoru Iwata announced a rather drastic price cut (from $249.99 to $169.99) halfway through summer. The Wii U, meanwhile, had the same awkward reveal as the 3DS — a one-two punch of a curt press release followed by big showing months later at E3. The crowds at the show were substantial and the reactions (including our own) were mostly positive — a large and cumbersome (and resistive!) touchscreen tablet that worked in tandem with the television. Investors, however, couldn't wrap their heads around it and shares of Nintendo fell almost 10 percent in the days following the Wii U's unveiling.
Nintendo is forecasting its first annual loss ever in the company's history — which is notable not only for being one of its absolute low points, but also as a sign that the company is far from down and out. The holidays have been good for the House of Mario, and the Wii U's "final form" should be seen by E3 2012 (with an official launch sometime after that).
Nikon 1: big hype, big letdown
Small, mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses are quickly taking their place among our favorite shooters, so we were excited when Nikon debuted the 1 Series. They're small, beautiful, have multiple lenses, and had great promise coming from the camera goliath. But in practice we found that the J1 has too small a sensor, too few lenses, too little manual control, and too many performance issues — all for a too-high $649 price. The higher-end V1 solves a few of the J1's problems but for an even higher price tag and still without overcoming the poor image quality. With Micro Four Thirds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic catching on fast, and the Sony NEX series becoming a more mature and impressive line of cameras, Nikon missed the mark in a big way. We've long looked to Nikon and Canon to set the standard for nearly every category of digital camera, which makes this blunder all the more surprising and painful.
HP never gives webOS a chance
"Will they or won't they sell?" That was the billion-dollar question on everyone's mind for much of 2011 after then-CEO Leo Apotheker announced that HP's webOS business was effectively being put on ice — a move met with resounding unpopularity, particularly considering that the company had acquired Palm for $1.2 billion just over a year prior. For an international corporation of HP's size, giving up on a promising, meticulously-designed mobile platform that easily simply didn't seem right.
HP's board, it turns out, agreed that Apotheker wasn't making the right calls. Fast forward several months; Apotheker has been dismissed after just a few months on the job, replaced by ex-eBay chief Meg Whitman. Though webOS's ultimate fate as a viable tablet and phone platform for the masses remains murky at best, the company is attempting a compromise: the code is being open-sourced, with HP promising significant investment of its own over the next several years. It sounds eerily similar to Nokia's decision to spin off the ill-fated Symbian platform into the Symbian Foundation in 2008 — but for an operating system on life support and a parent company unwilling or unable to sink the billions of dollars necessary to give it a proper shot, it might be the best solution available.
For an international corporation of HP's size, giving up on a promising, meticulously-designed mobile platform that easily didn't seem right
Products of the year
The Galaxy Nexus isn't a product of the year just because it's a member of Google's Nexus series. It's also a product of the year because it's the first to run Android 4.0 — the deepest revamp of Android since its commercial debut — and also, well, simply because it's a stellar device. The US launch on Verizon hasn't been without its fair share of drama: the carrier has been accused of blocking Google Wallet in favor of its own Isis initiative for mobile payments, and we saw countless rumored release dates come and go — it wasn't until the very day before the phone was on store shelves that Verizon finally confirmed availability.
This was the year that the MacBook Air morphed from an underpowered thin-and-light machine into the everyman's fully-fledged portable computer
The MacBook Air gets serious
It might seem odd to call the 2011 MacBook Air a "product of the year," as the svelte laptop has been with us in one form or another since 2008, but this was the year that it morphed from an underpowered thin-and-light machine into the everyman's fully-fledged portable computer. Apple only added a handful of things to last year's razor-thin aluminum unibody frame, but they made a meaningful difference without bumping up the price at all. Core i5 / i7 Sandy Bridge processors more than double the performance, the backlit keyboard makes the ultraportable viable in the dark, and a Thunderbolt port hints at the promise of fancy external expandability over the months to come (but not yet: see Disappointments of the Year above). Sure, we'd still like a matte screen and a dedicated graphics chip, but starting at $999 for the 11-inch model, you won't find a more desirable blend of portability, build quality and performance for the price in any Windows laptop out there. Just ask any of the manufacturers feverishly working on "ultrabooks" right now.
Three years ago, did anyone think we'd already be calling EV-DO and HSPA "glacial"?
LTE spoils us
Blazing download speeds (we've seen them as high as 60Mbps) and latencies that rival wired broadband: this is the future, and thanks to LTE, it's here today. In fact, Verizon has pushed LTE so aggressively — both through market deployments and compatible smartphones like the Thunderbolt, Droid Charge, Droid Bionic, and Droid RAZR — that for many users it's already starting to become an expectation. Three years ago, did anyone think we'd already be calling EV-DO and HSPA "glacial"?
The door that Sony cracked open with the NEX-5 has been blown wide open by the NEX-5N. Besides making the body marginally thinner and adding a touchscreen, Sony endowed the NEX-5N with a truly supreme image sensor. Its 16-megapixel CMOS sensor competes with the Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D (each company's latest and greatest midrange DSLR) for noise performance, while delivering image quality that leaves other mirrorless cameras in the dust. If the NEX-5N had a universal microphone input and a more generous battery, it'd be a formidable DSLR replacement for professionals as well. As it stands, it's the top choice for any hobbyist looking for the best image-quality-to-camera-size ratio.
Kindle catches Fire
Amazon took a dramatically different approach to the tablet market in 2011: instead of trying to compete head-on with the iPad, the company focused on content delivery and consumption with its $199 Kindle Fire, which runs a heavily-modified version of Android. The low price and tight integration with Amazon's services have already made the Fire a hit, even though the overall experience is a little rough around the edges. And how will Amazon manage what is effectively a second version of Android, free of Google's influence or control? We'll find out in 2012.
Siri's comprehension of natural speech is a real leap forward
The iPhone 4S, Siri, and voice control
While this year's slight refresh of the iPhone was predictable, that was exactly the problem: it was predictable. The hardware improvements Apple made to the iPhone 4S turned few heads, but one piece of software stood out: Siri. The app, a voice-controlled "personal assistant," was more notable for the future it promised, than the actual reality it delivered. Its list of commands are mostly limited to communication and calendaring features right now, with its question-answering and problem-solving aspects falling a little flat. Still, Siri's comprehension of natural speech is a real leap forward, and there's a foundation here for Apple (and hopefully other developers) to extend Siri and make it truly as intelligent as it sounds. Or you could just keep asking it personal questions and see how far you get.
Of course, Apple isn't the only one working on this: Google's voice recognition on Android is getting better and better, and it's more deeply embedded in the operating system than Siri, while Microsoft is heavily emphasizing the voice-control features of Kinect, especially for the sit-back entertainment aspects of the Xbox 360. If the last decade was marked by the emergence of touch gestures and motion control, the next few years might be when voice control and natural language recognition really take off.
Kinect: motion control is here to stay
Yes, Microsoft's Kinect is technically a 2010 product. And yes, the open source drivers were first unveiled in December (kudos to Adafruit Industries and its related bounty). But it really wasn't until this year that the "Kinect hacking" movement really took off. Anyone with the $149.99 motion / voice sensor could download the freely-available tools, and from that came a burst of crazy art projects, robots with better depth perception, new medical research, the requisite Minority Report-style UI experiments, and a lot more — it even made Skyrim for PC a wholly immersive experience. Microsoft eventually joined the fun in a very big way by announcing both a commercial SDK (currently available in beta, expected to roll out officially in early 2012) and a Kinect Accelerator program that'll help fund developers and startups.
On the consumer side, Kinect has continued to sell massively well — 750,000 units on Black Friday alone. The games aren't quite at level yet (2011 standouts include Dance Central 2, Child of Eden, The Gunstringer, and tighter integration with Xbox Live), but that number is growing and it obviously hasn't deterred sales. It's clear there's a fascination with the concept of Kinect even on a consumer level, and Microsoft's made it pretty clear it sees Kinect as an important part of its strategy going forward.
2012: a look ahead
SOPA: a battle for the internet's future looms
The end of 2011 saw furious opposition erupt online over the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The controversial bill would allow the government to force ISPs and search engines to alter the DNS system and search results to remove sites that traffic in stolen content and counterfeit goods — effectively remaking the architecture of the internet to combat piracy. The bill stalled out in the House of Reprentatives after encountering fierce protests from opponents who say it will affect both the technical operation of the internet and free speech online, but we're sure to see more of SOPA and its sister Senate bill, the Protect IP Act, in 2012.
Cyberwarfare and internet espionage
In the past we've only followed the occasional National Security story, but this year it's become an increasing part of our coverage — and in 2012 this will most definitely continue to be the case. In the past two months alone we've seen attacks against the US Chamber of Commerce, Landsat-7 and Terra-AM1 satellites, various chemical companies, and more. While China isn't the only country guilty of this sort of thing, it's generally agreed that Chinese hackers are "the world's most active and and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage." That's according to a report called Foreign Spies Stealing US Economic Secrets in Cyberspace published by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive this October.
The end of 2011 saw furious opposition erupt online over the Stop Online Piracy Act
A quick look at the report anticipates a future where the increasing proliferation of connected devices (with ever more complex hardware and software, and companies less willing to take the time to properly test them), the widespread adoption of cloud computing, and the further growth of multinational corporations (causing national boundaries to become increasingly irrelevant) creates a level playing field for both states and non-state actors engaging in cyberwarfare. While China and Russia will continue to be big players, the report lists "hackers for hire" and hacktivist groups as possible "game changers," in a sense democratizing the threat these attacks pose.
High-def phones take over
A trend that started late this year with devices like the LG Optimus LTE, HTC Rezound, and Galaxy Nexus, 720p displays are poised to take the mobile industry by storm in 2011. It wasn't more than a year and a half ago that WVGA was considered the cream of the crop — but since then, we've blown right through qHD and into 1280 x 720, a resolution that finally matches (and, depending on screen size, exceeds) the stunning "retina display" pixel density that debuted on the iPhone 4 in 2010. These screens are so dense, in fact, that it's unclear whether we'll ever need a higher resolution on sub-5-inch devices.
Content creators finally embrace converged devices
Smartphones, tablets and smart TVs all demonstrate how far technology has converged over the past decade, but content creators still aren't on board: rather than let you seamlessly slide your multimedia from computer to TV to phone and back again, they've long fought tooth and nail to keep it siloed. We're already seeing some loosening of the restrictions, however, with Netflix and Hulu Plus making it to mobile phones and set-top boxes with theoretically open software on board — not to mention all the streaming music services we've seen — we have a feeling that it's only a matter of time before the right DRM and monetization opportunities tempt content creators to embrace the likes of Google TV completely. Or, maybe Steve Jobs really did "crack" it, and 2012 will be the year that Apple's television changes everything.
Lytro and light field photography
In October, we tried a brand-new technology that blew us away: Lytro's plenoptic camera, which uses a proprietary sensor to capture interactive images you can refocus after the fact, apparently by capturing entire rays of light rather than just a pattern of photons on a 2D sensor. We weren't quite as impressed with the flashlight-like form factor of the company's prototype camera and its tiny images, but the idea is solid gold, and we can't wait to have a Micro Four Thirds-sized shooter or DSLR with Lytro's technology on board.
More ultrabooks: lower prices, more power
If 2011 was the year the ultrabook was born, 2012 looks like it will become the year it learns to walk. Not only are more companies like Dell and HP joining the race, but Intel's future Ivy Bridge platform is supposed to improve performance, battery life, and graphics. Additionally, prices are expected to drop significantly and by year's end ultrabooks will have a new operating system: Windows 8. Basically, 2012 could be the year where the ultraportable finally goes mainstream.
Intel takes another crack at the smartphone market
There's no debating that the smartphone revolution has been powered by ARM. For Intel, that's a big problem — it sold its ARM-based processor unit to Marvell several years ago, and despite multiple initiatives to push x86 architecture into handsets since then, it's gotten zero traction (anyone remember Moorestown and the canceled LG GW990?). It's once again promising that 2012 will be the year of the x86 smartphone (and tablet) thanks to Android support and the ultra low-power Medfield chip... but the ball is squarely in Intel's court to prove it can steal some of ARM's thunder.
While Apple was busy building a tablet market and Google was scrounging for market share, Microsoft didn't have so much as an operating system suitable for larger touchscreen tasks. In 2012, Windows 8 will change that and much, much more, bringing the company's Metro design language, an app store, cloud integration, and ARM support to a general PC audience. On some levels it may look like the proverbial lipstick on a pig, but if Microsoft can sell the fancy new Start Menu to OEMs, corporations, and consumers, it could bring fully-fledged Windows to a variety of new form factors, adding welcome competition to the CPU and tablet markets, and becoming a Trojan horse (in a good way) for cloud computing going forward. If not... remember Windows Vista? Either way, expect a lot of news surrounding Windows 8 computers next year.
The ball is squarely in Intel's court to prove it can steal some of ARM's thunder