2009: The Year in Tech

When the history of personal technology in our times is written, 2009 won't be singled out as a watershed year. There were no stunning new products, technologies, or trends that immediately promised to change everything. Instead, it was a year of ongoing evolution on multiple fronts, from smartphones to social networks.

Which is not to say that it was a dull year in the world of tech. Here's a quick recap of the year that was, including highlights, lowlights, and an oddity or two.

Comeback Kid of the Year
In January of 2007, Microsoft unveiled Windows Vista. It proved so sluggish, glitchy, and short on truly exciting new features that many consumers simply ignored it and went on using the aging-but-dependable Windows XP. Windows 7, released this past October, turned out to be the worthy successor to XP that Vista never was. It's a low-key upgrade that stresses substance over sizzle -- and that is far more likely than Vista to run decently on the computer you already own.

Most Promising Newcomer
Palm's Pre smartphone, which Sprint began selling in June, hasn't become an iPhone-like megahit. But it's the most interesting new phone since the original iPhone. Palm bravely scrapped the old software that powered landmark gadgets such as its PalmPilot PDAs and Treo smartphones and built WebOS, a highly original new operating system that's fast and fun to use, with one of the best mobile Web browsers yet. The company also gave the Pre a highly pocketable design and slide-out keyboard that make it a distinct alternative to Apple's phone, not a mere iPhone wannabe.

Web Browser of the Year
2009 may have seen the most intense competition in the browser market since the invention of the Web. Users of all five major browsers -- Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera -- benefited from meaty upgrades. The most influential of the bunch has been Chrome: Its emphasis on simplicity, speed, and security makes it the biggest news in browsers since Firefox showed up a half-decade ago. Apple fans finally got to see what the fuss was about in December, when Google released a Mac version, fifteen months after the first Windows edition arrived.

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Site of the Year
If hype were all that mattered, Twitter would be the easy winner; no other Web service inspired anywhere near as much buzz, analysis, skepticism, and general fascination. But I'm giving the nod to a different social network -- one that, in slightly quieter fashion, has done far more to change everyday life. With 350 million users, Facebook now has a larger population than the United States. Your aunts, uncles, coworkers and former coworkers, and long-lost childhood pals all hang out there; it's the AOL of this era, and a whole lot more.

Coolest Entertainment Trend
Thanks to sites such as Hulu, software like Boxee, and gadgets such as the Roku player, it's now possible to do a high percentage of your TV watching at your convenience on the Internet, rather than at an appointed time via a traditional cable or satellite hookup. Prime-time hits, classic shows, and obscure niches are all well represented on the Web. (Traditional TV, however, is still unbeatable when it comes to live programming such as news and sports.)

Most Tantalizing No-Show
Tech pundits spent a ridiculous amount of time bloviating this year about products that aren't available -- some of which haven't been officially announced at all. Among these high-profile pieces of vaporware: Apple's alleged tablet computer, netbooks that use Google's Chrome OS operating system, and the Google Voice application for the iPhone.

My fave, however, is another unreleased iPhone program that received less glory: Lala, an addictive, super-simple way to find new music and listen to all the songs you already own. It feels like a natural extension of Apple's iTunes, which may help explain why Apple bought Lala in December. The fate of the app, alas, remains unknown.

Least Appreciated Blockbuster
Consumers appear to like the cheap little laptops known as netbooks -- during a disappointing year for PC sales, they were the only type of netbook that saw an increase in sales rather than a decline. The industry, however, seems to regret having invented the things: It keeps predicting that folks will stop buying them in favor of more potent, pricier models. Worse, both Microsoft and Intel impose limitations on computer manufacturers intended to keep netbooks from getting too powerful. Why the lack of love for such a popular product? With most models selling for under $400, it's tough for PC makers to sell them at a profit.

Most Endangered Gizmo
For the past several years, handheld GPS navigation devices from companies such as TomTom have been among the most useful gadgets you can buy -- and with prices starting under $100, the price has been right. In 2009, however, smartphones encroached on standalone navigators like never before. An array of companies (including popular GPS-maker TomTom) released iPhone apps that provide turn-by-turn driving directions, and Verizon's Droid phone was the first to ship with a new version of Google Maps that provides full-blown navigation for free. With phone GPS getting so good, how many people will purchase and tote a separate device a year or two from now?

Most Helpful Reminder That Technology Is Far From Perfect
The buzzword of the year may be cloud computing -- the notion that we'll all dispense with storing software and data on our computers in favor of using Web-based services that put everything on the Internet. But 2009 was rife with instances of Web services failing in spectacular fashion. Google's Gmail suffered multiple extended outages; users of T-Mobile Sidekick phones lost access to their information for days and were told -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that it might be gone forever. So much for the notion that the cloud is always a more reliable repository for our stuff than an old-fashioned PC.

Wackiest Internet Glitch
On January 31st, Google briefly warned everyone who performed a search that every site on the Internet was potentially dangerous -- including Google itself. It turned out that a misplaced slash mark (call it the typo heard 'round the world) confused the system that the search engine uses to identify hazardous sites.

I could go on, but my mind is already racing ahead to 2010. We're talking tech, so here's a safe bet: The months ahead are going to be packed with surprises. Here's hoping the ones you encounter are pleasant, and that you have a happy new year on every other front, too.

Harry McCracken blogs at Technologizer, his site about personal technology. He's also the former editor-in-chief of PC World.