Walt Mossberg

Year of the Talking Phone and a Cloud That Got Hot

While other industries struggled, consumer technology seemed to march ahead as always in 2011, with important new products and services continuing to roll out. Sure, some tech companies, like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, suffered reverses. And some products, like Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad, flopped. But many shone.

So here is a look at a few of the biggest tech products of the past year, with some analysis of what they signified and what issues they raise for 2012. As with all my columns, this one is focused only on products and services provided to consumers. Also, as usual, this column isn’t meant to offer investment advice or to evaluate the management skills or financial condition of companies.

The iDevices
PTECH-JUMP

Siri, right, the voice-controlled artificial-intelligence system, made the iPhone 4S stand out even though it looked like its predecessor.

Even in a year when its iconic leader, Steve Jobs, resigned as CEO and then passed away, Apple kept going from success to success. In March, it introduced the iPad 2, a thinner, lighter, faster version of its groundbreaking tablet and sold tens of millions of them. In October, it brought out the iPhone 4S, which proved popular even though it looked identical to the prior model. One reason: The phone introduced a voice-controlled artificial-intelligence system called Siri that answers questions and performs tasks without requiring typing or searching. Siri, while still rudimentary, could herald a revolution in practical artificial intelligence for consumers.

The lesson here is that Apple is driving the industry toward simpler, more reliable digital experiences tied into ecosystems of content and cloud services. It is expected to bring out radically new iPhones and iPads in 2012. But can it fend off challenges from popular, rapidly improving rivals using Google’s Android operating system? And, in the absence of Mr. Jobs, can it keep churning out game-changing hits?

PTECH-JUMP

With its ultralow price and Amazon connection, the Kindle Fire may be the first tablet to gain significant traction against the iPad.
The Kindle Fire

Despite some initial software flaws and its chunky, plain hardware, the diminutive Fire appeared to be the first color tablet to gain significant traction against the iPad. The biggest reasons are its ultralow $199 price and its tie-in to Amazon’s huge content library. But the Fire may have started a trend that could be a problem for Google: It demotes the Android operating system to an under-the-covers piece of plumbing, ignoring Google’s user interface and apps marketplace.

In 2012, Amazon is expected to bring out a larger, possibly sleeker Fire, and, if it continues to prove popular, it could attract larger numbers of apps designed for the Fire and sold only through Amazon. But despite its success with simple e-readers, Amazon has little experience as a maker of general-purpose computing devices, and it will have to be nimble and creative to keep up with Apple and more-traditional Android rivals.

LTE

Though several cellular technologies claim the moniker “4G” to indicate fast data speeds and greater capacity, only one, LTE (Long Term Evolution), delivers true broadband speeds consistently. This past year, it finally spread significantly in the U.S., both in terms of geography and in the number of devices supporting it. The LTE leader by far is Verizon Wireless and it has the potential to make the wireless Web, and wireless streaming of video, the equal of their wired counterparts. AT&T is racing to catch up and Sprint, which uses a different 4G system, says it will join the LTE parade.

But at this stage, LTE still consumes too much battery power. And LTE networks, if they become the norm, could get overwhelmed. To fend off this prospect, the biggest carriers in 2011 began charging more for greater data usage, a move that could curb the spread of innovative services that rely on large data downloads, such as video streaming and sharing of music and high-resolution photos.

PTECH-JUMP

More companies took advantage of cloud computing, with Google introducing the Chromebook, which relies almost entirely on the cloud.
The Cloud

Many players began offering consumers the opportunity to both store their data on, and run apps from, remote servers on the Internet, a system called cloud computing. Google even introduced a new kind of laptop, the Chromebook, that has almost no internal storage and relies almost entirely on the cloud. An example of a cloud service: music “lockers” that store all your songs on multiple devices. Cloud services are sure to expand in 2012, but questions remain on their reliability, security and privacy. And while most now cost little or nothing, these offerings could become another monthly fee burden for consumers.

PTECH-JUMP

Android became easier to use with the release of the Ice Cream Sandwich version, used in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
The Android Army

In 2011, Android overtook Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating system, called iOS, in users. Though no single Android device is as popular as the iPhone or iPad, Android is now the collective leader, with hundreds of devices using it. Samsung, in particular, had success with its Android-based Galaxy devices. And a new version, called Ice Cream Sandwich, continued Android’s steady improvement by making it easier to use. However, Google may be losing control of Android, as hardware makers and cellular carriers redefine it to suit their own needs, and fail to offer consumers updates in a timely fashion. Except for the Kindle Fire, the operating system hasn’t caught on in tablets.

Windows

Microsoft has been way behind in the new areas of super-smartphones and tablets. In 2011, the software giant began to try to reverse that situation. It introduced the first competitive version of its sleek, sophisticated Windows Phone software, called Mango, though so far without much uptake by consumers. And it previewed a bold new version of main Windows, called Windows 8, with a multitouch interface that, unlike Apple’s approach, is a single operating system meant for both PCs and tablets. It will start shipping in 2012.

PTECH-JUMP

Following in the Apple MacBook Air’s footsteps, a crop of thin and speedy ultrabooks, such as the Toshiba Portege Z835, pictured, became the new standard for laptops, with Windows PC makers coming up with their own versions of the machines.

Still, Windows Phone must somehow attract many more users. And Windows 8 is a gamble, because it includes two interfaces: the new tabletlike face and the old, familiar Windows look, which could confuse consumers.

Ultrabooks

In 2011, Apple’s MacBook Air, previously a niche product, became the new standard for laptops—thin, light, speedy, with long battery life and solid-state memory for storage instead of a hard disk. Now, Windows PC makers are following suit with similar machines called Ultrabooks.

Ultrabooks may recharge the Windows laptop scene in 2012. However, they will have to become less costly—they now hover at around $1,000—and their solid-state drives don’t offer the capacity of hard disks at an affordable price.

PTECH-JUMP

The Lenovo IdeaPad U300
Television

The reinvention of television picked up steam in 2011, albeit in a small way. Despite some miscues, Netflix streaming of TV shows to many devices grew in popularity. Set-top boxes that bring Internet video to TVs, like the Roku box and Apple TV, got better and more popular, though Google’s competing effort was a dud. Microsoft’s Xbox is set to compete strongly, using its Kinect add-on to find and play media apps with gestures and voice commands.

The big test may come in 2012, when Apple is believed to plan to ship a whole new type of Internet-connected TV, which the company hasn’t confirmed. A big obstacle: Cable and media companies will have a huge say in this potential revolution, and the current system serves them well.

So, 2011 was an exciting year in consumer technology. I can’t wait for 2012.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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