Every year, there are ingenious devices that fail miserably -- and some mediocre gadgets that became global hits. 2010 is no exception.
With that in mind, I offer the tech surprises of 2010 -- plus some understated predictions for the breakout hits you'll see in 2011. Just keep in mind, I was one of those who scoffed at cameras in cell phones, only to personally witness Muhammad Ali step out of an SUV -- and 20 passersby whip out their cell phones and click away (he was good-natured about it). On the flip side, I was also one of those who predicted years ago that Netflix would run roughshod over Blockbuster and Apple, which it has done with gusto.
1. The Rise of the Androids
It wasn't a surprise that free software from Google for smartphones would find a place in the market. We do like "free," after all. But Apple's iPhone had such a running start, who would have predicted that phones based on Google's Android would so rapidly eclipse everyone in terms of growth? (Okay, I did.)
In October, Android phones grabbed 23.5 percent of the market, up from just 2.8 percent the previous year. By November, it was 25 percent, second only to Nokia's phones worldwide. Blackberry and iPhones? Fuggedaboutit.
Prediction: New phones based on Windows Phone 7 won't slow the rise of Android, but a Verizon iPhone using the new 4G network could. If Apple doesn't get a new iPhone out on a carrier other than AT&T, its market share will decline in 2011.
2. The Tardiness of Fast 4G for Cell Phones
The iPhone proved how popular surfing the Web on the go could be. So with cell carriers touting their high-speed wireless networks for so long, one would have expected that 2010 would have seen upgrades all around. But in the end, only Sprint and T-Mobile made serious efforts to boost their network speeds (being second banana makes you try harder, of course).
Granted, there have been snags with the chips that were supposed to be used in new 4G phones, and decisions like Sprint's to charge customers more to use the sporadically available faster networks didn't help. Will 2011 be the year of 4G or is pokey 3G good enough?
Prediction: Verizon will make a major push in 2011 with its 4G network and drain away customers from other carriers, especially AT&T -- with or without an iPhone.
3. The Apple iPhone 4 Slip Ups
How could a company that single-handedly revolutionized the smartphone market blunder so badly in making the simplest part of a cell phone? Hey, nobody's perfect.
Apple's iPhone 4 works wonderfully as everything but a phone -- just ask anyone who owns one. Dubbed “antennagate,” the company eventually admitted that it had a reception problem and issued a free fix: millions of iPhone lovers ended up putting ugly rubber bumpers around the devices to avoid dropped calls. (Such mea culpas are still frequent, thanks to AT&T's strained network.) It was so egregious a problem that Jon Stewart did a whole routine about how the iPhone 4 didn't work ... as a phone.
I expected a backlash, droves of iPhone owners demanding refunds. But instead, people lined up to buy more of 'em -- even with higher data fees from AT&T. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to Stewart's rant. After criticizing the company for several minutes for making the world's worst cell phone, Stewart pleaded to be one of the first to get Apple's next phone. Will the iPhone 5 bring back voice calling?
Prediction: Apple will offer a new, improved phone on another carrier to compete against Android-based phones.
4. Pandora, the Greatest Internet Music Site Ever?
Digital music doesn't sound better than tracks on a CD, but it's a heck of a lot more convenient. Even more convenient: Streaming music based on your personal tastes. Enter Pandora, which experienced a great surge in popularity this year.
It's been on the market for over 10 years, and technology analysts have predicted its demise many times -- me too. But Pandora hung in there. This year, it finally sprang from its sick bed amassing more than 65 million listeners. Why? Because it got past the issue of record company royalties and started hooking up with smartphones, TVs, set-top boxes, and even cars. People used to talk about iTunes. In 2010, they were talking about Pandora.
Prediction: Music services offering streaming feeds from broadcast radio stations will get more traction -- and more listeners -- in 2011. There's also room for Last.fm and Grooveshark to grow, but keep an eye on Slacker.
5. The Undeserved Success of the Apple iPad
Tablet computers go back 20 years, and none of them really caught on. So when all the hype started about Apple's plans for its own tablet, I yawned. Of course, it's turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year. None of the previous attempts were as sleek and well-conceived as the iPad, however, and none had the long coattails of the iPhone to ride on.
Yes, tablets are ideal for the den or living room. They're unobtrusive yet convenient and simple to use. And there were a wealth of programs the iPad could run the minute it was launched, from Google Earth to Netflix. Who cares that it's over-priced, doesn't work with USB devices, lacks a camera, or is too heavy to use as an ebook reader? Market research group iSuppli forecasts sales of the iPad will reach 13.8 million by the end of this week, proving it's what people were waiting for.
Prediction: Even with all the hype, new tablet competitors based on other operating systems -- HP's Palm, Microsoft's Windows, and Google's Android -- won't make a dent in the iPad's success ... until 2012. Then again, I was wrong about the iPad before.
6. E-Readers Live!
They said the colorful iPad would kill black-and-white e-readers. But dull devices march on, like Amazon's Kindle -- now the bestselling product in Amazon's history (even beating "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”). Analysts at Citigroup estimate that Amazon will sell about 5 million Kindles this year, doubling sales from the previous year.
Monochrome e-readers are cheaper ($139 for a Wi-Fi Kindle) and offer a better book reading experience than anything short of, well, a real book. Unlike LCD devices such as the iPad, you can read them in broad daylight. And for book lovers who want to focus on the story they're reading, there are fewer distractions like e-mail, Facebook posts, Tweets, or silly games.
The continued success of e-ink e-readers proves two things: They just work, and no matter what Steve Jobs thinks, there are still people who want to read.
Prediction: Monochrome e-readers will drop in price again, and may be free to shoppers who promise to buy a certain number of ebooks. Also, 2011 will see the rise of Google's e-book store, which will finally offer Amazon some serious competition.