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5 tech earthquakes in 2011

Jan 04 2012 07:20 *John C Abell

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PICK a year: it's easy to look back and convince yourself That Was The Year That Was in tech, partly because the pace of change is so rapid and partly because we so readily embrace and then quickly depend on things that are completely different.

Consider this: when the class of 2012 was applying to college, there was no iPhone.

Until those students were just about at the end of their  junior years, there was no iPad. Both of these nascent devices now define the mobile internet, which is where all the action is.

But 2011 had some pretty remarkable advances that seem to be the start of inexorable things to come, as well as some surprising and sad examples of demise, whose impact will surely be felt for years to come, in ways that are currently near-impossible to predict.

Some may argue that 2011 was the year of the tablet (redux), because of the spritely launch of Amazon's Fire and Barnes & Noble's reboot of the Nook colour. I say, it was bound to happen, and that the only really interesting thing is that content companies are giving Apple a bit of competition, and not the hardware bigwigs.

The cloud was big in 2011, but in a way it just seemed to finally achieve escape velocity after Apple created iCloud within its rigorously controlled ecosystem.

Here are five tech events from 2011 that may not seem entirely obvious but which I think will resonate for years.

  • Siri

There was the usual guessing game when Apple was preparing to announce its successor to the iPhone 4 in the late spring. There was lots of talk about incorporating NFC, an emerging technology for mobile, wireless payments, and 4G. But close to nobody focused on Siri - even though the app had been well covered as a "gee-whiz" item when it launched.

Even when Apple bought the company a few weeks later, reporting focused on the challenge to Google and on search, rather than the prospect of entirely new ways of using a mobile device. Apple itself (as is its wont) did its best to downplay the purchase of a "small company", even though it knew Siri was going to be the key ingredient of its next iPhone version.

"Apple buys smaller companies from time to time but doesn't comment on products or plans," an Apple spokesperson told the New York Times.

But even in its first outing, Siri has proven to be a mature and reliable companion that doesn't improve on something but creates an entirely new relationship - and from that sort of gene pool, amazing things come.

Computers don't judge - they don't think - but by employing semantic interpretation, offering sensible possible answers to ambiguous queries and eliminating the need to train your phone to understand you, Siri has humanised voice communication with an inanimate object in a way which seemed impossible before it happened. Even IBM's Watson - hardly a consumer device - doesn't do anything much more or better than Siri, conceptually.

It is staggering to imagine the refinements and extensions that will be coming, and difficult to imagine that voice command won't become the primary means of engaging mobile devices (and anything they control, which is everything) in very short order.

Which makes the argument about software and hardware keyboards already quaint. Speaking of which...

  • Black days at BlackBerry

BlackBerry is in what looks very much like a death spiral. It is still a powerful brand, and still has a loyal base, and the enterprise still favours it. It reigned supreme a mere two years ago, but there are too many good alternatives now and its chief asset - reliable push email - has been commoditised.

People like to get their own phones, and company IT departments are getting hip to the idea that BYO is better for them. A multi-day, multinational outage didn’t help Research in Motion's reputation, and the absurdity of the Playbook tablet's lack of the Personal Information Management software that is RIM's raison d’etre only makes BlackBerry seem overripe.

  • Google+ Facebook = social network wars

While we were all waiting for the inevitable Facebook IPO, Google finally cracked the social network code with Google+. The social network from the search giant remains a work in progress, but the progress has been steady and positive.

Google may be No 2 for a long time (or forever), but for the first time in the short history of social networks there will be competition: the current flavour of the month isn't going to kill the former one. Google will not walk away from this for at least two intertwined reasons: it needs a way to figure out how to reduce its nearly 100% dependence on ad revenue, and it has tons of that revenue to support Google+ for as long as it likes.

In 2012 I predict we will start to see Google+ buttons on more mobile apps, adding to the de rigeur Facebook and Twitter integration, which is how social services go viral in the mobile space.

  • Mobile Flash, RIP

Steve Jobs declared a jihad on mobile flash - read Walter Isaacson's bio to understand his deep antipathy towards Adobe, and get a peek from my report of an Apple Town Hall. And Jobs won.

Reasonable people can differ on whether it made sense to make Flash better for mobile, or whether web designers should have taken the opportunity to end their sloppy addiction. But when Adobe said "No más" it instantly anointed a more open standard called HTML5 (enthusiastically backed by Jobs). This avoids a messy standards war and clearly supports a web language that is already being widely used to great effect in mobile.

The abandonment of mobile Flash could hasten the demise of Flash on the web entirely, as we rapidly make smaller screens and battery-powered devices our weapons of choice.

  • Steve Jobs, RIP

This one really is easy. Jobs was inventive in ways we will study for generations, but what he wanted to do more than anything was create a company that would continue to do what he did. That would be his enduring legacy.

At Wired we sometimes called Jobs "Willie Wonka", not only because of his iconoclastic eccentricities but because he seemed to have a magic touch. Like Wonka, Jobs knew he needed an heir since we all knew, in our hearts, that he had been dying for years. I've said on many occasions that Apple is fine in the hands Jobs picked and groomed, CEO Tim Cook and designer Jonny Ives, which means Apple is fine for a decade or more.

What then? The death of someone so important to such an ethereal enterprise can't be calculated, except in retrospect. But make no mistake: because of his untimely death the world changed forever in 2011.

 - Reuters

* John C Abell is the New York bureau chief for Wired. In a former life he worked for Reuters in various capacities, from glorified copy boy to chief architect of the news agency's internet news service. The opinions expressed are his own.

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