Tech in 2010: Touchy, feely, fun
Was there ever a year in which technology changed so rapidly? No, I know this was not a 1969 moon landing kind of year, or a 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on. I'm talking about personal technology, and the way we relate to it - for 2010 was the year we got all touchy and feely with our computing devices.
Looking back on a year in which new gadgets seem to have arrived every week, I'm going to focus on three types of device - and three big technology brands, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, which have once again proved that giant companies can still innovate.
This was the year when smartphones went mainstream. Suddenly it seemed that a phone that did not easily allow you to go online or install apps was not worth having.
And just about every single new smartphone featured a touchscreen - three years after Apple unveiled its first iPhone in 2007, touch has become the way we relate to our phones. Apple continued to innovate with the iPhone 4, with its much improved camera, but its launch was marred by a growing realisation that this excellent mini-computer was actually rather poor at making phone calls.
There were also smart new phones from Blackberry, the business phone whose growing popularity amongst teenagers is one of the more surprising developments of recent years. Nokia, far and away the market leader, pinned all its hopes on the N8 - only to find it had still failed to produce a knockout touchscreen smartphone. And Microsoft, very late in the day, brought out Windows Phone 7, an operating system which proved startlingly useable and fun.
But it was Google with its Android operating system which had the best of 2010. If you were looking for the very latest in apps, on phones with the most innovative hardware, Android was the place to go. Late in the year, its sales started to overtake those for the iPhone. More importantly, it provided some real competition for Apple, both in terms of technology and philosophy.
The iPhone is still the phone which gives the most intuitive and elegant experience of the mobile internet - as long as you accept that Steve Jobs is in charge of how you use it and what's on it. But Android is the wild frontier, where anything might happen. Just look at the comparative treatment of apps giving access to Wikileaks data on the two different platforms - Apple moved swiftly to a ban, while Google just stood back and let stuff happen.
My year began in the United States, watching the launch of a tablet computer which was going to change everything. No, Not Apple's iPad but the Que, a product developed by the British firm Plastic Logic. At its Las Vegas launch, the Que promised to deliver newspapers, documents and books to well-heeled business users via a slick touchscreen interface. Sadly, it never went on sale.
Just a couple of weeks later Apple's tablet did make its debut, amid the usual "this changes everything" hoopla from Steve Jobs. He was to prove correct - but it's easy to forget all these months later just how sceptical many were about the potential of the iPad. Here's just one comment posted beneath a review in the Guardian back in January:
Limited to Apple apps
Afraid this one is going the way of the Cube."
But the gadget buying public did not care about those limitations and have rushed to buy Apple's tablet, unlike that Cube which bombed a decade ago. With 14 million sold in 2010, it is now Apple's fastest selling product ever
"The public are fools", has been the response of the uber-geeks, who have now transferred their allegiance to Android. But the rest of the computer industry begs to differ, rushing to bring out rival tablets - the most successful of which are on the Android platform.
And the app revolution, unleashed by the iPhone, has been given a new lease of life by the iPad. Publishers have rejoiced, seeing the potential to earn money from online content for the first time, and games developers have rushed to exploit a new source of revenue.
Now Apple is preparing to bring apps to the desktop, revolutionising the way we buy software. That's a prospect which must leave Microsoft wondering again why a rival which seemed doomed in the late nineties is threatening to best it in another area where it once was dominant.
But guess who proved the biggest innovator in the games world in 2010? While old stagers like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft set new sales records, it was Microsoft that did most to widen the appeal of console gaming.
Kinect, the motion capture system which turns the player's body into a games controller, has been an instant hit, with 2.5m units sold in its first 25 days. While Sony too has been innovating with its Move system, it looks as though Kinect has given the XBox a real edge in the console wars.
More importantly, it has shown that years of effort from the scientists in Microsoft's research labs can actually pay off in both commercial and strategic terms. The science behind Kinect may play a far bigger role than encouraging us to leap about to Lady Gaga in a dance game, or run on the spot while competing with friends and family in a virtual Olympics. The fact that hackers have rushed to open up the secrets behind the technology and find new applications for them shows that Microsoft has at last found a product that is ahead of the curve, and has an aura of cool about it.
Mind you, the games industry in 2010 was not all about advanced technology. Casual games, many of them played on Facebook, became ever more popular, with millions of people spending time tending their plots on Farmville or indulging in a spot of murder and extortion with Mafia Wars.
Perhaps the most successful single new product of the year was a very simple game, developed by a small Finnish company, which involved throwing birds at pigs. Angry Birds started as an iPhone app and is now appearing on just about every platform imaginable.
What does that prove about tech in 2010? That simple fun is a great sales pitch - and that even in a time when Google, Apple and Microsoft dominate the technology world, the little guy can still break through.
If you have your own view of what was the single most important or successful technology product of 2010, please feel free to comment below.