2011 is almost over and as the world gets ready to party and ring in the new year of 2012, it's always helpful to look back at the past 12 months to see where we have been in order to have a better idea of where we might be going in the future.
In the tech industry there were a ton of major developments in the PC, mobile and Internet markets. It was hard to come up with a list of the top 10 biggest tech news stories of the year. In fact we decided to make it the top 11 list because there was simply too much not to comment on. However, in the end picking the actual number one story was, sadly, not difficult.
11. Nokia's Windows Phone gamble - Nokia is still one of the biggest mobile phone makers in the world. However, the Finland-based company has lost some of its market share thanks to the rise of the smartphone from Apple and various Android-based makers. In February, Nokia announced a new partnership to produce new smartphones. However, its partner wasn't Android or even Blackberry. It was with Microsoft and its revamped Windows Phone operating system.
Many industry insiders wondered why Nokia was making such a move with Microsoft. The Windows Phone 7 operating system, which launched in late 2010, was not considered to be a big competitor to iOS, Android or even (at the time) Blackberry. However, Nokia seemed confident that its deal with Microsoft would result in smartphones that would make an impression.
In November, Nokia launched the Lumia 800, its first Windows Phone-based device, in parts of Europe. While the reviews have been mostly on the positive side, there's still a question on whether or not the general public has been picking up these new devices. We should learn a lot more in the beginning of 2012 as both Nokia and Microsoft will likely reveal sales figures for the Lumia 800 at CES 2012. The US should also get the first Nokia Windows Phone-based device, the Lumia 710, in mid-January.
10. Microsoft acquires Skype - For the past few years, Microsoft has been accused of sitting on all of the money it has made and not using it to make big acquisitions. That changed in May when the company announced it would be paying $8.5 billion to acquire the Internet phone software company Skype. At the time Skype had 170 million users. Microsoft said the purchase of Skype, which finally was made official in October, would "extend Skype’s world-class brand and the reach of its networked platform, while enhancing Microsoft’s existing portfolio of real-time communications products and services."
So far the move to purchase Skype has yet to make much of an impact on either company. Microsoft has yet to integrate Skype into its products, even Windows Phone, while the Skype division continues to support and update its current software product line. We expect to see a lot more collaboration between Microsoft and Skype in 2012.
9. RIM's issues - There's no doubt about it: Research in Motion had such a crappy 2011 that its co-CEOs, James Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, were moved to take a salary cut to just $1 a year each. It started the year with the launch of its Blackberry Playbook tablet which became a massive sales and critical failure (No native email program? Really?). The company's once popular Blackberry smartphones lost a lot of their market share to the iPhone and Android devices in the past year. RIM also laid off 2,000 of its employees in July.
Could it get worse? Yep. Owners of Blackberrys around the world suffered through a few days of outages for their online features, then made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in August due to the use of the messaging service during the London riots. RIM announced its new Blackberry operating system, BBX, and then was forced to change it to Blackberry 10 thanks to a trademark lawsuit. It capped the year off by saying that its next generation Blackberry phones would be delayed until late 2012.
Can RIM come back from these series of failures in 2012? At the moment it doesn't look good. RIM's management needs to take the bull by the horns and get the company back up and running with new products that have both the hardware and the software to compete with the other smartphone makers.
8. HP's double take - While HP didn't have quite as bad of a year as RIM, it was pretty close. The PC maker tried to launch a webOS tablet, the HP TouchPad, in the summer of 2011. Sales and reviews were, like the Blackberry Playbook, extremely poor. In August, HP pulled the plug on the TouchPad. It also seriously considered spinning off its massive PC business into its own stand alone company.
In the end, cooler heads prevailed. The company got rid of the CEO, Leo Apotheker, that launched the TouchPad and came up with the silly PC spinoff idea. It brought in former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to run HP. A few weeks later, Whitman announced that HP was keeping its PC business. Later in the year, she announced that HP was taking the open source route with its webOS operating system and even revealed that HP will release new hardware with the OS, including tablet devices.
With Whitman on board and already steering HP on a more steady path, the company looks like it will have a much better 2012, especially as HP gets ready to launch PCs, notebooks and even tablets with Microsoft's Windows 8 inside; they even managed to shift a bunch of TouchPads after dramatically revising the price.
7. Netflix's fall - At the beginning of 2011, it seemed like nothing could stop Netflix. The streaming movie and TV show company was increasing its content of videos and its stock price was soaring as more and more people signed up to use the service. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Nope. In the end, the company, under the leadership of CEO Reed Hastings, was too overconfident and in 2011 it cost them dearly. It started in July when the company, totally out of the blue, announced changes to its pricing that caused some customers' bills to go up by 60 percent if they had both a streaming video plan and a DVD mail rental plan. The changes launched a firestorm of protests from customers and later Netflix admitted it lost more subscribers due to the pricing change than it had predicted.
That news sent the company's stock price down the drain. It didn't help that one of its major content providers, the cable TV network Starz, announced it would not renew its current agreement with Netflix. At one point, Netflix tried to pull an HP and announced it was spinning off its DVD mail rental business into a new company called Qwikster. Once again, customers protested this move and a few weeks later Netflix backpedaled on that plan.
While Netflix still has over 20 million subscribers, it's fair to say that the company made a couple of bad decisions in 2011. It's still sticking with its new pricing plan, at least for the moment, but we hope that in 2012 Netflix figures out that in the end, the customer is always right.
6. Kindle Fire's launch - As we have already seen, launching a new tablet device to compete with Apple's popular iPad has been tough on companies in 2011. In September, Amazon figured out a way to make a tablet that would sell millions of units. In short, the Android-powered Kindle Fire tablet was cheap. At $199, it's less than half the price of Apple's cheapest iPad.
The Kindle Fire launched in mid-November and despite some mixed reviews from tech critics, Amazon says it has already sold millions of the tablets, along with its other Kindle eReader products, for the holidays. The price point has already made some tablet makers cut the price of their own previously released tablet products such as the Blackberry Playbook.
So far, Apple has yet to make any changes in its iPad pricing but you have to think that Apple is at least taking a long look at the Kindle Fire's sales success. In 2012, we would not be surprised to see Apple launch a new version of the iPad that has a price that's a bit closer to Amazon's tablet.
5. Google+ launch - Facebook took out MySpace and has now become the king of the social networking business with over 750 million registered users around the world. In 2011 a new rival to Facebook launched that has the potential to take away some of the social networking pie. In June Google launched Google+, first as an invite only service and later in the year to everyone else.
Google put in a number of features in Google+ that made a lot of people sit up and take notice. One was the way the service handles user-created groups via "Circles" that is more seemless than that of Facebook groups. More importantly, Google+ can tap into all of the previously launched Google products, including Android, Blogger, Search and more. That kind of tie-in will likely help Google get more and more users in 2012.
Officially, Google said back in October that Google+ has 40 million registered users, although current third party estimates have that number at 62 million. That's a pretty good fraction of Facebook's audience for a service that launched less than a year ago. 2012 will likely see even more growth for the Google+ user base.
4. iPhone 5 ... er, iPhone 4S launch - For several months in 2011, the Internet was overflowing with supposed leaks and secret info about Apple's launch of the iPhone 5. It was supposed to have a bigger screen, have a new design and more. In the end, Apple surprised many when it instead revealed the iPhone 4S in October. It had the same case as the iPhone 4 that launched in 2010, but did have the new dual-core processor that the iPad 2 has.
Aside from the new processor, the biggest new feature was in the iPhone 4S's software. Siri's voice recognition features allowed people to speak naturally into the phone to ask for information, directions and even some funny Easter Egg comments. Even though the iPhone 4S wasn't that much of a change compared to its predecessor, sales of the phone were huge when it launched. Apple said that it sold 4 million units just in its first three days.
While the iPhone 4S launch was impressive from a sales standpoint, there's no doubt that many Apple fans expected more from the next version of the iPhone. Rumors are already flying that the iPhone 5 will really launch sometime in 2012 and that it will be a total redesign of the iPhone product. We will see if that is really true.
3. The year of the cyber attacks - While there have been hackers who have launched online attacks against both businesses and government organizations in the past, 2011 seemed to be the year that these kinds of events escalated in both their number and in their scope. By far the most visable of the attacks came in April when a group managed to attack the servers of Sony's Playstation Network. The intrusion caused the personal info of tens of millions of people to be exposed. Sony shut down the network and it took weeks to bring the service back up to speed worldwide.
Other attacks on gaming, entertainment and other groups were reported in the weeks following the Playstation Network incident. One group, LulzSec, took credit for many of those attacks. They were believed to be an offshoot of the well known hacker group Anonymous. In the end, LulzSec announced later in the summer that they were done with their campaign. However, Anonymous and other groups have since launched further attacks, including most recently one against the security company Stratfor where a large number of credit card numbers were released.
It doesn't seem likely that these attacks are going to stop anytime soon. Indeed, as the world moves more and more into using the Internet, we can expect these kinds of incidents to increase and perhaps get bigger in scope.
2. The Windows 8 preview launch - Technically, Microsoft won't officially launch the next version of its operating system until sometime in 2012. However, the company launched what it called a "developer preview' version of the OS for anyone to download and install in September. Microsoft is aiming squarely at the growing tablet market with Windows 8's Metro user interface which is designed specifically for touch screens.
The developer's preview is just that; a preview of what's to come. Many of the features that will be in the launch version of Windows 8 are not present in that build. That should change in late February 2012. That's when Microsoft claims it will launch a full beta version of Windows 8 that should be more stable and have nearly all of the major features intact. That includes the new Windows Store which will allow for direct purchasing and downloading of Metro-style apps for the OS.
Microsoft is still sticking with its "sometime in 2012" launch date for Windows 8 and indeed many PC makers have already hinted that they will release their first Windows 8-based products in the new year. 2012 is, without a doubt, going to be one of Microsoft's most anticipated launches for a new product in years.
1. The death of Steve Jobs - As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, picking the top 10 biggest tech news stories for 2011, along with which positions they should fit in, was hard. For the number one biggest tech news story of 2011, it was sadly an easy choice. Steve Jobs, the man who co-founded Apple, was later fired, and then came back to run the company in 1997, helped to turn Apple around to become arguably the most influential tech company of the 21st century so far. In October, Jobs died at the age of 56 after fighting cancer for several years.
The massive worldwide reaction to Jobs' death showed how much influence that he and Apple had on people, even those who would not consider themselves to be tech savvy. That, perhaps, was Jobs' biggest accomplishment. The products that Apple launched during Jobs' second life as its CEO, including the iMac, the iPhone and the iPad, showed that design and a well engineered user interface could make using a smartphone or a PC or a tablet easy for so many people that sometimes felt confused by other products.
Jobs's death means that in 2012, Apple will be launching products that will still have Jobs' influence but perhaps not his final approval. It remains to be seen if the company, under its new CEO Tim Cook, will continue to stay on top of the curve in creating products that people want to buy and use. 2012 should give us some clues if Jobs' legacy will continue without him.