Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The Year in Tech

It's going to be impossible for me to cover every nuance of everything that happened this year in technology, not just because of the sheer quantity of things involved, not just because so much of it is so damn complicated, but because this is a truly tumultuous time for technology.

Traditional desktop and laptop computers are still here, but their supremacy is being challenged by smartphones and tablets. Almost anything with a screen can (and does) connect to the Internet, and as we become more connected our privacy is increasingly at risk. Social networking has pervaded every nook and cranny of everything, ever. And, to top it all off, the debate on Network Neutrality reached a fever pitch this year, and some would argue that the future of the Internet hangs in the balance.

It has been a big year. Let's talk about it.


Competition is heating up here - the main battle for marketshare is being fought between Apple's iPhone and devices running Google's Android operating system, but Blackberry maker Research in Motion and Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 operating system shouldn't be counted out just yet.

What's really fascinating about smartphones is how much the "phone" part of the equation has been deemphasized - they make and receive phone calls, if only just, but their mandatory data plans make them more like always-on, always-connected mini-computers. The more capable the phones get, the more like computers they are.

And phones did get more capable this year, thanks in part to hardware refreshes but mostly due to a string of pretty-good software updates - iOS 4 brought better app organization and multitasking to the iPhone, while Android's software updates continuously improve the platform every six months or so (I have less firsthand knowledge of these improvements since I don't have an Android phone, but still).

There are two things to watch for next year that will influence where this market goes: the first is the prospect of an iPhone built to run on Verizon's cellular network, which by most accounts is considered superior to AT&T's. Rumors of a Verizon iPhone are nearly as old as the iPhone itself, so this may not come to pass in 2011, but if it does happen it has the potential to ruin Android's day.

The other thing is the fragmentation of the Android platform - as the software has gotten more popular, it has shown up on more and more phones. These phones all run at varying speeds, and the since the people who sell the phones are also the people responsible for packaging software updates, the phones aren't all running the newest Android version. Add to this the fact that vendors can customize Android pretty heavily, and you've got a potentially frustrating situation for software developers and consumers alike.

Tablets The iPad

A lot of what I said about smartphones applies to the iPad, the gadget that finally made consumers want the tablet form factor that Bill Gates envisioned a decade ago - it's a very portable device that, for many, could potentially replace a laptop or a lightly-used computer. This part is even more true of the iPad, which has a large enough screen that using it for long periods of time is easy on the eyes and doesn't feel cramped.

The iPad gets a specific mention for its sheer impact - when I did my first-blush write-up of the tablet last January, I would never have imagined that it would gain the kind of sales numbers that it has gotten - over 7.5 million of the tablets have been sold since April. App developers have stepped up to make it a more than worthy replacement for a netbook, and with iOS 4.2 Apple stepped up with an operating system that made it less of a giant iPod and more of the PC replacement it was meant to be.

What's even more amazing is how completely blindsided Apple's competitors were by the iPad. That's the only scenario that explains why the iPad still has no real competition, though it will surely come in 2011. Windows 7 tablets have been few and lackluster, sporting abysmal performance courtesy of the pokey Intel Atom processor, and the few Android tablets on the market are running an OS (version 2.2, codename Froyo) that Google doesn't recommend for tablet use (tablet support was supposed to improve with Gingerbread, version 2.3, but right now it looks like that's not going to come until Honeycomb launches next year).

By the time most companies have their first tablet out the door, the second iteration of the iPad will likely be in full swing. As with any lucrative market, more competition will eventually spring up in the tablet space, but for now the iPad basically stands uncontested.

Facebook and the Social Networking Monster

It's been a year of milestones for Facebook. 500 million users. The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg is declared TIME Magazine's Person of the Year. And, of course, privacy complaint after privacy complaint.

Facebook has been in the news pretty consistently since its inception, sure, and 499 million users isn't really less than 500 million, practically speaking. But this year of milestones draws attention to just how large Facebook has become, and how firmly rooted it is in all corners of the modern Web.

Think about it: most Web sites (including ours) feature prominent Facebook integration in the form of "Like" buttons and fan pages and sidebar widgets. The ability to instantly share with all of your Facebook friends nearly any link from any news or opinion or enthusiast site makes Facebook not just a social networking site, but a powerful news aggregator. I know I get a small but statistically significant amount of news from my Facebook news feed rather than through a primary (or even secondary) source.

Other companies see how central Facebook is to the modern Web, and have scrambled to replicate its success through any means necessary. In February, Google practically strong-armed Gmail users into signing up for Buzz, its social network/news feed, and Apple did much the same thing with an iTunes update that introduced the music-oriented Ping along with its customary interface uglifications. Myspace, long ago surpassed by Facebook in terms of marketshare and functionality, rebranded itself as a hub to share music and video with your friends rather than a direct Facebook competitor.

None of the above services can hold a candle to Facebook's ubiquity. 500 million users. That's enough to classify Facebook as the defining movement of our generation, something that unifies people in the way that others in the increasingly fragmented entertainment industry just can't manage anymore. That's as fascinating as it is terrifying.

Net Neutrality

I don't think there was a tech story this year that was harder to follow than the debate over Net Neutrality, both because the concept is relatively obtuse and because coverage of the debate is usually strongly biased in one direction or another. I can't claim not to be biased, but I can try to explain the debate in common language.

Let's use streaming video as our example, since it's the popular bandwidth-hog that has helped to spur this debate: proponents of Net Neutrality worry that an Interner service provider like Time Warner or AT&T will prioritize traffic from big services like YouTube and Netflix - basically, that they'll tell their tubes to move this data more quickly than data from other sources.

Something like this could potentially smother the small startup outfits that have basically driven the Internet up to this point - two adolescents in a garage can't pay to have their content streamed as quickly as their larger competitors, and because of this their new service can't compete and thus can't gain a foothold. Supporters of Net Neutrality also posit that any costs involves in prioritizing some content over other content will be passed on to the consumer.

Folks on the other side of the fence say that some communication, like health- or emergency-related traffic, needs to be prioritized, and that consumers would benefit if high-bandwidth stuff like streaming video could be delivered more quickly.

The issue is deeper and more nuanced than this simple example illustrates, but this should be enough background for the layperson. Net Neutrality supporters basically want any Internet subscriber using any Internet service to have the same access as any other customer subscribing to any other company's Internet service. If Time Warner and Comcast offer different levels of Internet access to their customers, it creates disparity and fragmentation that may be harmful to the Internet's natural growth.

The FCC recently issued some legislation on the topic, but neither of the diametrically opposed and ideologically pure parties on either side of the debate are happy with it. Net Neutrality supporters are are upset that few (if any) restrictions are being placed on wireless Internet providers (read: Verizon, AT&T, etc.) and that the FCC may not be able to enforce the regulations that it has imposed upon regular ISPs (read here and here for more on why). The large corporations opposing Net Neutrality are upset because they aren't being given free license to do whatever they want to make money.

It's a prickly and contentious debate, and it's going to get no less prickly or contentious as 2011 unfolds.

Those are the stories! Expect more coverage of each and every one on the site and on the After the Jump podcast next year.