Year in tech: the highs and lows of 2011
It was clear back in January that 2011 was going to be the year of the tablet.
Indeed, if 2011 had a shape it was definitely rectangular with rounded corners, but of course there was much more to 2011′s tech than that. In 2011 we saw some extraordinary things, said hello to some extraordinary kit and waved goodbye to an extraordinary man.
Microsoft didn’t unveil Windows 8 as rumoured in January, but it spent most of the year bigging up its forthcoming operating system. A developer preview was made available in September, and by the end of the year we knew pretty much everything about Windows 8 on tablets and Windows 8 in general.
When it wasn’t banging on about Windows 8, Microsoft spent most of 2011 jumping out from behind things and shouting "boo!". The first shock was a multi-billion dollar deal with Nokia to make Windows Phone the new OS for Nokia’s high-end kit, and the second was when Microsoft plonked down a staggering $ 8.5 billion for Skype for no other reason than to annoy Google.
It was an odd and arguably overpriced move: as we said at the time, Microsoft "started with an opening bid of ‘all the money in the world’."
Rise of the robots
The big news in 2011 was the rise of the robots: Android smartphones. By November, Android accounted for a massive 52% of the smartphone market.
However, while the newly unveiled Ice Cream Sandwich – which unifies the Android codebase so there aren’t separate versions for smartphones and apps – is really rather lovely, Android tablet sales have been relatively titchy. ICS promises to change all that, but it’ll be a while before it’s widespread.
Android also powered success of another kind: Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet both have Android underpinnings, albeit heavily customised ones that don’t include the standard Google Apps or the main Android Market. Launched amid much hype towards the end of the year, the two non-techy tablets are expected to become big sellers.
More tablets than Moses
When Apple unveiled the iPad in 2010, rivals hooted with derision – but by 2011 they were desperately churning out tablets to try and get a bite of the enormous tablet money pie. Many of them failed, and failed spectacularly: by the Autumn, Apple’s rivals were hiding behind shipment numbers to disguise the fact that once their devices had reached shop shelves, they stayed there.
As the year progressed and the mountains of unsold tablets reached terrifyingly large proportions, some firms cracked. HP was first, canning its TouchPad and promising to quit the PC business before changing its mind, selling TouchPads for a packet of sweets and a few shiny beads and promising to stay in the PC business forever and ever and ever.
A question mark now hangs over WebOS, the rather excellent mobile OS HP was/wasn’t/was/wasn’t going to can. The latest: it’s going to be open sourced.
Meanwhile over at RIM, top execs did their best impressions of the Titanic’s captain. "The PlayBook is a huge success!" they yelled over the sound of dump trucks unloading thousands of unsold tablets. "We’re cutting its price by nearly half because it’s so awesome!" they added as RIM shareholders hurled themselves from high buildings.
Even when RIM got lots of free publicity it was the wrong sort: RIM’s BlackBerry messaging service, BBM, was widely blamed for being the tool of choice of UK rioters.
In September, we predicted that the combination of the iPad 2 and Kindle Fire meant that "as far as the oh-so-lucrative Christmas shopping period in America is concerned Motorola, RIM, HP and the rest might as well pack up and go home."
We didn’t expect any of them to take our advice so quickly.
March’s iPad 2 launch illustrated three of the key trends of 2011: Apple making really nice kit, Apple kit flying off the shelves, and people being disappointed that Apple didn’t make products to meet the specifications invented by a bored man on the internet.
On the eve of the launch we predicted that "all over the internet, people will write about how much of a disappointment it is, how Steve Jobs has lost his touch and how the Motorola Xoom / BlackBerry PlayBook / a piece of wood with a face drawn on it in biro is the new tablet king."
We were right, and the reaction was even more pronounced when the rumoured iPhone 5 turned out to be the iPhone 4S. The only difference between the rumoured device and the real one was the name, so of course half the internet piled on. "Rather than unveil an iPhone 5, Apple merely made the world’s most popular smartphone much better," we said. There’s no pleasing some people.
The last few years have seen Apple do extraordinary things: in 2011 it was the most valuable technology company on the face of the planet, worth almost as much as Google and Microsoft combined.
The four way fight-fest
In many ways 2011 resembled a tag-team wrestling match, with Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon taking it in turns to put their tanks on one another’s lawns. We’ve already mentioned Amazon versus Android, but the bookseller also launched a cloud-based music service – as did Google, Apple and (via Spotify integration) Facebook.
Google has a social network and now owns a phone and tablet manufacturer, Motorola Mobility; Facebook’s encouraging us to forget about Google and live inside its walled garden; Google’s making YouTube more like a broadcaster while Apple and Amazon stream TV shows… if there’s a market and there’s money in it, the big four are fighting it out.
What we’ve seen this year is a distinct change of emphasis among the world’s most valuable tech firms: they’re no longer content to stay in one sector, such as making nice bits of kit or running a social network.
If there’s a pie, they want a finger in it, whether the filling’s music, movies, social networking, books, newspapers, magazines or anything else that can possibly turn a profit.
We like tradition here in Britain, and we appear to have a new tradition of idiotic attempts to regulate the internet.
In the aftermath of the London riots the Prime Minister seriously considered shutting down social networks in any future unrest, because clearly "the trouble wasn’t spreading because of the close-ups of burning buildings shown continuously on the news channels. No. It was spreading because of tech."
Sadly such idiocy was rather common. A great deal of time, effort and money was wasted drawing up plans for widespread web censorship that were subsequently abandoned on the grounds that they were completely sinister. As we explained at the time, "The process, it seems, goes something like this:
BIG COMPANY: Oi! Judge! This website’s made of villains and evil!
JUDGE: Blimey, what a well-researched and argued case, with lots of supporting evidence! Let’s block it forever!"
While the government changed its mind, organisations such as the BPI are now using the courts to make ISPs block individual sites. The first successful such action ordered BT to block Newzbin2, and it took, oooh, about ten seconds for the site’s users to find a way around the block.
There was some good news – in November the EU Court of Justice ruled that ISPs couldn’t be forced to install expensive, indiscriminate monitoring and/or filtering systems on the grounds that such systems broke more laws than a London rioter looting JD Sports – but calls for censorship do have worryingly widespread public support. We aren’t saying goodbye to this issue as we say goodbye to 2011.
We lost a giant in 2011: Steve Jobs, who died in October. As we wrote following Jobs’ resignation from Apple in August, "If you were to pitch his story as a script, it’d be rejected for being too far-fetched: a man starts a firm in his garage, changes the world, gets kicked out of his own company, gets into the film business, becomes a billionaire, comes back, changes the world a few more times and ends up in charge of the most valuable company on the face of the planet."
Bill Gates was one of the first world figures to mourn Jobs’ passing: "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come.
"For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely." So will we.