The year in tech - and what's coming in 2011

By Rhodri Marsden

A quick skim through some front page news stories over the past year provides incontrovertible proof of technology's grip on our lives. Scarcely a week went by when the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple or Twitter didn't feature in some way in a major news story.

Sometimes, as with Apple, this was down to a product launch where the world found itself analysing the minutiae of a press conference without being entirely sure why.

Other times - as was regularly the case with Google - the issue was privacy; endless assessment of how much data of ours the search giant had possession of, what benefits we derived from allowing them to do so, and how this might become more worrying as Google expands its activities beyond the web.

Facebook and Twitter, while bringing friends together, also brought us into contact with unpleasant strangers; while various spats and arguments raged between adults, concerns were loudly voiced over children's use of social media.

The way the medium continued to urge us to share our thoughts led to innumerable cases where people's otherwise muttered asides suddenly rocketed into the public domain and into the national news; we still forget that when we say something, people might actually be listening.

Away from the news, meanwhile, we're glued to technology. We carry small, black lozenge-shaped devices to help us stay in touch, amuse ourselves, inform us and guide us home.

Spam, viruses and worms from the criminal fraternity continue to wreak more havoc - after all, an attack on technology is an attack on us all. And, in the case of the Stuxnet worm, discovered in an Iranian power station in late September, the potential damage is chilling.

Gadgets

The year began with the long-awaited announcement of the iPad; we knew it was coming, we just didn't know what it would be called, or what exactly it would do. Analysts failed to pinpoint exactly why people needed one, but it was heralded as a beautiful object. Millions forked out for it nevertheless, and customer satisfaction hovered around an astonishing 90 per cent.

Smartphones, however, continued to annoy us - regardless of the number being sold - with a survey back in March revealing that around half of us equate them with frustration or disappointment. The year saw the number of developers for Android phones overtake Apple for the first time; it saw the birth of the iPhone 4 - universally praised, if you ignore the media non-story over the "dropped call if you're holding it wrongly" - while teenagers became even more obsessed with their BlackBerries.

Amazon's eventual local support (not sale) of the Kindle gave us our first real look at America's most popular e-reader; reviews were positive, but Christmas wishlists will ultimately reveal whether we're buying into the e-book over the paperback.

Meanwhile, technology manufacturers went crazy for 3D technology, even if we remained somewhat ambivalent; 3D-enabled television sets started to become standard, and the first bunch of consumer-priced 3D camcorders went on sale in the late summer. This allowed us to attempt to recreate blockbusters like Avatar in our living room (and fail, of course).

Life Online

This year saw the 25th anniversary of the first dot com domain name registration and also saw our lives become even more inextricably bound with the internet.

Facebook's user-base hit the half-billion mark, and its rise to global omnipresence was documented in an acclaimed feature film; continued outcries over Facebook's apparent disinterest in privacy issues - particularly during the launch of its location-sharing service, Facebook Places - didn't really seem to dampen our enthusiasm for using it.

An American social media project called Diaspora made headlines by claiming to be "answer" to Facebook's privacy problems, but it remains in development while we continue Facebooking and tweeting.

The concept of "oversharing" continually hit the news. Sports stars, musicians and civil servants all found themselves in hot water after openly expressing colourful views in public. The anonymous vitriol associated with online exchanges saw websites bring in controls to calm people down, while some, like Britain's Sky News, shut down their comment boards altogether. But no-one suffered as much from an idle comment as Paul Chambers, an accountant whose hyperbolic expression of his annoyance with the weather on Twitter saw him gain a criminal record and lose his job.

Gaming

We have been lavished with blockbusters in 2010. The Vietnamese setting for Call Of Duty: Black Ops, the seventh in the series, was eagerly awaited, but not as warmly received as might have been expected. However, the Wild West action-adventure Red Dead Redemption, was almost universally adored, as was the "violent realism" of Halo Reach for the Xbox 360.

But it was Heavy Rain that proved to be the most eye-opening, occupying a strange halfway house between moody film-noir thriller and video game (with lots of driving rain, naturally). Also of note was Minecraft, an independent project developed by Markus Persson and quickly noted for its addictiveness, despite the concept - building 3D structures out of textured blocks - being initially tricky to get one's head around. Such was Persson's success with Minecraft that his PayPal account was frozen temporarily for a 'suspicious deposit' after rapidly amassing NZ$1.72m of receipts for the game.

While the iPhone became the most developed-for gaming platform and a supposedly imminent 3D revolution remained on the horizon, we saw the arrival of Sony's Move and Microsoft's Kinect, motion controllers that both left Nintendo's pioneering Wii looking a bit tired. While Kinect received a bit of a hammering for setup difficulties (gameplay thwarted by incorrectly placed furniture) Move was applauded for its frightening precision and budget price.

Media

The battle to get us to pay for music and video rather than download it illegally for free continued. Spotify, the subscription-and-advertisement-funded streaming jukebox, made a move against Apple back in May, with a software upgrade that allowed you to play files stored on your computer as well as from the service itself. (Spotify is, unfortunately, like many internet content services, is not available in New Zealand).

Spotify is still the most compelling reason for file-sharers to abandon downloading habits and consume music without breaking the law - but they carried on doing so; record label Ministry of Sound responded with a tactic of sending out heavily worded letters, demanding suspected downloaders coughed up a few hundred pounds or face their wrath in court.

The end of the year saw yet another chapter in the continuing saga of the convergence of the computer and the television. Both Apple TV and Google TV (also not available in NZ, although Apple TV is) are aiming to become the one-stop shop for all video content, whatever its source; neither yet have the deals in place for this to be realised, and Google has quoted 'software issues' as the reason for its delays, but this does point to a moment where seamless shifting between satellite, on-demand services, YouTube and downloaded content - perhaps voice controlled by a smartphone remote control app - will feel like second nature.

The thumbs down

But for all the success stories, there are notable failures. Ping, excitedly revealed by Steve Jobs at one of those rallies masquerading as product launches, was supposed to be the new music-based social network. But the public, already swamped with opportunities to share music and not actually pay for it, remained utterly disinterested. Its failure was cemented by a last-minute switcheroo that meant Ping couldn't connect to Facebook, leaving us unable to find any friends who were using it.

While Google remained almost unassailable in the field of search (despite noble efforts from Microsoft's Bing) they rushed out products that should probably have either had more testing, or never been let out at all. Buzz, another new social network, got off to a bad start by automatically connecting us to everyone in our email address book - including employers and landlords - while Wave remained baffling right up to the point Google pulled the plug.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch took the bold step of erecting a paywall around the content of Britain's The Times website. Unique visitors plummeted by 62 per cent, and page views by 90 per cent. But revenues may have increased by between two and four times over the previous advertising-funded model.

Finally there's Stuxnet, created to spy on and reprogramme industrial systems. While 60 per cent of infections took place in Iran, it sent shivers down the spines of governments worldwide, suddenly alerted to the potentially disastrous consequences of cyber-warfare.

Top tech tips for 2011

iPad2

If Apple's current strategy of releasing a new iPhone model every 12 months is applicable to the iPad - and rumours from Taiwanese factories suggest that it is -we should be seeing a new iPad in the spring. The recently released iOS4software for the iPad has already given a new lease of life to the original, but the new model could see mounted cameras and inclusion of Apple's video-callingsoftware, Facetime.

Context-aware computing

If you thought that targeted online advertising was eerie, wait for a forthcoming wave of devices that can anticipate our needs and provide content, advice or services accordingly. Intelligent accelerometers will be able to learn and sensewho's holding a device -great for remote controls -while smartphones, rather than merely suggesting restaurants that are nearby, will start suggesting ones that you might like based on your previous movements.

The cloud gets bigger

More of our computing and entertainment will be based on remote servers, with applications, data and media stored remotely and streamed to us across the internet. The long-awaited response from Apple to Spotify - iTunes streaming your music library to your portable device - will be only one small way that the cloud can be expected to expand during 2011.

Solid-state drives

And as the cloud gets bigger, our devices can get smaller. As we don't need the storage space any longer, you'll see more solid-state hard drives, with superfast startup times and greater energy-efficiency. Apple's new MacBook Air, tablet PCs(left) and ultra-mobile PCs are already blazing that particular trail.

The app revolution

These little bolt-on toys push our smartphones (and now our televisions) in exciting new directions: gaming, location, information, socialising. An estimated quarter of a billion people will have bought an app-enabled smartphone this year, which will see 2011 sales of apps for Android, Nokia, Apple, Blackberry and Windows effortlessly outstrip the estimated $7.75bn of revenue generated in 2010.


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