Tech Smart: Best of 2011

March 21, 2012

Some years see groundbreaking technologies sweep into the market and change everything, but 2011 was not one of those years. That’s not to say there weren’t significant new gadgets and features hitting the (now mostly digital) shelves this year. However, the last 12 months have been more about shifting trends and technology platform transitions that are setting the stage for what a few years from now is likely to be a vastly different looking technological landscape.

Some years see groundbreaking technologies sweep into the market and change everything, but 2011 was not one of those years.

That’s not to say there weren’t significant new gadgets and features hitting the (now mostly digital) shelves this year. However, the last 12 months have been more about shifting trends and technology platform transitions that are setting the stage for what a few years from now is likely to be a vastly different looking technological landscape.

Here we take a look back at the devices and trends launched in 2011, as well as a moment to take note of the devices, platforms and even companies that left the playing field this year. It was a year where smartphone capabilities continued to expand, tablets took a firm hold on the market place and larger computers began to shift in design to accommodate the coming reality of being interconnected and in some cases dependent on their mobile relatives.

Smartphones

Smartphones continue to be the go to gadgets and throughout 2011 the category continued to advance in terms of processor speeds, screen technologies and software capabilities. But while the trend in computers has long been more powerful machines in smaller packages, 2011 saw the release of ever more massive handsets with screens closing on 5 inches measured diagonally.

As 2011 comes to a close, the state of the art in smartphone technology is killing off a large number of other device categories. The cameras are getting good enough to make stand-alone point-and-shoots as well as camcorders such as the once popular but now discontinued Flip models unnecessary. The ubiquitous GPS functionality of these devices is also making having a separate gadget for turn-by-turn directions redundant.

Most of these plus-sized phones run Google’s Android operating system that has thoroughly cemented its place as the most popular mobile operating system. A few run Microsoft’s Windows Phone7 OS, but despite the massive company behind that platform and the partnership it forged with leading phone-maker Nokia, the Windows Phone OS has failed to catch on with the public and more importantly it’s failed to drive a great deal of interest from application developers.

It’s this lack of developer support that led Nokia to abandon its homegrown MeeGo OS earlier in the year despite positive reviews from critics. The fact of the tech world is that if software is not being written for a platform, it will not survive, and with so many platforms on the market it’s difficult for popular app titles to be made available for all of them. This same factor was key in HP’s decision to abandon the WebOS platform it had purchased from Palm.

Developers are also largely abandoning the once-dominant BlackBerry devices, but the story of this brand’s fall in 2011 is more about the company behind the phones, Research in Motion, falling woefully behind the times in terms of device capabilities, screen size and other key functions. RIM has fallen so far, so fast many do not believe the BlackBerry brand will be around much longer.

Developer mindshare is a key to the success Apple has experienced with its iOS that powers the still popular iPhone. While many were disappointed with the small upgrades found in the iPhone 4S, Apple launched its newest phone with a major improvement to that OS, a powerful point-and-shoot camera and Siri, a digital personal assistant that understands conversational commands and interacts with a range of phone and online functions more effectively than previously launched voice controls for smartphones.

Siri is only available on the iPhone 4S, but for the most part Apple has made a point to keep most of its mobile devices running on the same OS platform. That gives developers one target for their software and thus an easier time getting their latest killer app onto the large number of devices. It also means iPhone users can skip a hardware upgrade or two while still seeing the capabilities of their smartphones expand due to software improvements.

It’s here where Android can be found lacking. Google is constantly upgrading the capabilities with new dessert-named iterations of its software. Since December 2010 there have been three major Android releases, Gingerbread, Honeycomb (a tablet-only version of the OS) and Ice Cream Sandwich, but while each has added new efficiencies and capabilities, it’s been up to individual smartphone makers and cellular carriers to decide which, when and if they will allow users to upgrade.

I currently use an iPhone 4 and have experienced several software upgrades in the 18 months I’ve had the device, while my wife’s Android phone (a Samsung Galaxy S model) of around the same age has seen just one upgrade from Android Éclair to Froyo, which was launched in May 2010. It’s not clear if she’ll ever be able to update the device just to Gingerbread which is already a full year old, and will likely need to purchase a new handset if she wants access to the latest features Android can offer.

But while that might be frustrating for the lifespan of a phone, Android does offer a range of devices on the extremely fast 4G LTE cell networks available through Verizon and AT&T. The speeds of this mobile network allow for truly useful mobile computing at speeds rivaling some home Internet connections.

Another benefit of the Android platform is the fact that multiple device makers are building smartphones on it, which means new form factors and concepts are right at home. Motorola is one device maker playing with this by making smartphones such as the Atrix, which can become the computer behind a laptop-like dock. The device might be a bit ahead of its time, but the concept is certainly one likely to become the norm a few years down the road when smartphones are truly ready to be the main computer in most people’s lives.

Tablets

Last year Apple and the iPad had the tablet landscape pretty much to themselves. The device was an instant hit after its January 2010 launch and basically made tablet computers viable consumer products. It took the industry an entire year to catch up with Android tablets finally making their way to consumers in sizable quantities earlier this year.

But at least for now, Apple’s lead remains insurmountable. Even as Android tablets-as well as an effort from RIM that gained little marketplace traction and HP’s soon abandoned but fairly well liked offering-were being launched, Apple upped the ante with the iPad 2, a lighter, thinner, more powerful slate with front and back cameras. It was again an instant hit, outselling the original and setting standards in every metric, including price.

A big problem for the early Android tablets was the operating system which was set up for devices with phone-sized screens. Apple kept the basic software the same, but helped developers revise their programs for the extra tablet real estate, something Android did not immediately do. However, in the spring Google launched the Honeycomb Android update for tablets and this helped level the playing field somewhat.

Computer makers and smartphone makers met in the middle with Android slates in a range of shapes and screen sizes launching in 2011 from the likes of Acer, Asus, Archos, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and others. Much like in the smartphone realm, Apple offers one size for a unified tablet marketplace while Google and its device partners offer an array of options.

There are good devices to be found among the Android tablets, but again the platform lags behind in applications designed specifically for these slates, and with the launch of the next gen Android OS Ice Cream Sandwich the Android tablet OS space is fragmenting in a similar vein to the smartphone arena. It seems likely that Android tablets will eventually gain traction much like Android phones did, but 2011 was not the year in which this happened.

Of course it was the year tablets solidified their space in the computing universe and knocked a few other devices off the table. Ultra-portable netbooks had a short run there, but that form factor seems to be phasing out now. Ultra-light laptops are taking out the marketshare from people looking for more portable computing options and tablets are taking out the marketshare of users looking for a media consumption device rather than a full-scale computer.

Another victim of the tablet wave seems to be dedicated e-readers. While there is no shortage of digital book surrogates, tablets offer similar form factors with far more capabilities in one device. In fact two of the biggest e-reader players, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both dove headfirst into the tablet market this holiday season as Amazon launched the Kindle Fire and B & N the nook Tablet. Both of those devices are being positioned as lower-priced tablet options that sacrifice some computing power to shave down the dollar signs.

2011 was certainly the year tablets cemented their place as go to gadgets for a variety of users with businesses embracing them for travelling employees and presentations, media companies launching publications targeted at handheld screens and plenty of software developers finding new ways for people to do work, play games and consume content on the devices.

With the competition nipping at Apple in terms of price and capabilities, it seems likely that 2012 will be the year of real competition for the iPad, but if developers don’t get on board with programming for Android and other tablets the challenges will be hard to sustain.

Desktops/Laptops

The year in more traditional computer formats was a lot less exciting. Sure desktop computers come in ever more powerful varieties with larger screens (some even with 3D capabilities) and laptops continue to become the only computers some people use. However, all of these trends have been in motion for several years if not decades.

With laptops the biggest trend again seems to be other companies chasing something Apple accomplished a few years ago. The first MacBook Air was a revelation in 2D, a laptop so thin it could easily slide in and out of an envelope. Sure it was underpowered and lacked enough memory for most computer users, but man was that thing thin.

Well those computers have come a long way since then as solid state hard drives and other technologies have advanced. Now these thin machines are ready to truly be the only computer many people need. The processors might not be ready to crunch through major 3D video applications, but they can certainly handle everyday tasks and a range of PC makers now offer ultrathin laptops running Windows.

The biggest desktop change of the year was Apple’s latest OS version, OS X Lion, which took some of what the company did for its phones and tablets and brought the concepts to larger screens. A similar move is on the way from Microsoft with Windows 8 overhauling the company’s desktop OS sometime next year.

The Cloud

2011 was certainly the year The Cloud came into its own. Online data storage and mobile access from anywhere and any device is now somewhat common, easily put to use and available from Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and smaller players such as Dropbox.

Saving a file one place and making it accessible from everywhere is the goal of cloud computing and it fits with the model of devices growing more mobile with less on board memory. The key to this model being a success remains reliable mobile Internet access at speeds that make interacting with online files worthwhile.

The technology for this exists now and with the right accessories and solid network connections someone could make a high end smartphone their only computer. 4G LTE networks are certainly up to the task in terms of speed, but whether or not this becomes the norm in computing depends on the people who control those networks.

If data is priced in a way that users can continue to expand the amount of it they send and receive the cloud <The Cloud ? >could become the way people keep files. However if the networks restrict access to certain types of data, price access to steeply or otherwise slow things down, the pace of integration of this new approach to computing will decrease and a conflict will arise between the companies designing new technologies and the networks these technologies are designed to work on.

Wrapping up 2011

When looked back on as a whole, 2011 is likely to be seen as more of a transitional year than a breakthrough. Noticeable advances in technologies showed up leading to incremental changes in the way people and their devices interact, but there was no major breakthrough or singular device to hit the scene.

The iPad 2 was a big launch last January and it was followed by a parade of competing tablets from every other device maker. When it comes to smartphones, a myriad are now available with specs that leave many devices just 18 months old in the dust. Someday soon computers may largely come in one of those two varieties.

Yet those tablets might not be a fit for everyone’s computing needs just yet and many 18-month-old smartphones are plenty capable of handling the tasks of most users. The industry wants to push for an endless upgrade cycle but if what you have works; stick with it until there’s something else you need. By the time you need more capabilities, the device you’re looking it will be far better than the one you want, but don’t need today.