Oh how the world of mobile technology has changed in just 12 short months. Last year at this time, there were no 4G LTE phones available and all Android tablets ran on version 2.2 or earlier of Google's OS. Steve Jobs was still with us last December, but Siri was not. AT&T hadn't made a bid for T-Mobile yet, while both Skype and Motorola remained independent companies.
With technology moving so quickly, it's easy to lose track of 2011's most-important trends and events. Here are the top 12 mobile tech stories of the year, all of which will continue to affect our daily lives well into 2012 and beyond.
Steve Jobs Dies
On October 5th, Apple announced that founder Steve Jobs had lost his long battle with liver cancer. With his passing, the tech world lost its brightest and most visible star, while Apple fans lost a spiritual leader. Jobs will long be remembered for his countless contributions to the technology industry—from the original Mac to the iPhone—and his unrelenting focus on building simple, but elegant products. New CEO Tim Cook promised to honor Jobs' memory by continuing his work.
LTE Becomes the 4G Standard
If you wanted a 4G phone in 2010, you'd be buying a WiMax or HSPA handset that was lucky to get 5 Mbps download speeds. In 2011, Verizon changed the game with the HTC Thunderbolt, the first phone to run on the carrier's LTE network. In short order, the carrier had more than half a dozen Android phones running on LTE, while our nationwide 4G tests showed the carrier's network trouncing AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile with average speeds of 12.3 Mbps down and 4.7 Mbps up across five cities. Later in the year, AT&T launched its own LTE network in 15 cities and delivered its set of LTE phones, including the LG Nitro. Sprint also committed to replacing its WiMax network with LTE by the end of 2012.
AT&T Tries to Buy T-Mobile, Fails
This year, the U.S. nearly lost one of its four national phone carriers as AT&T agreed to a $39 billion deal with Deutsche Telekom to buy T-Mobile. AT&T claimed it was acquiring the company because it needed additional wireless spectrum, but the U.S. Department of Justice didn't agree, filing suit to stop a merger many felt was designed simply to eliminate one of AT&T's competitors at the expense of consumer choice. On December 19th, AT&T finally dropped its bid and agreed to pay T-Mobile $4 billion in consolation fees. Don't expect T-Mobile to stay single for long; other suitors, such as Dish Network, could bid on the fourth-place carrier very soon.
Apple Sues Samsung, HTC Over Patents
If we were naming a person of the year, it would be the patent lawyer. Though other companies sued each other left and right over parents, and Google bought Motorola largely for its patent portfolio, Apple was the year's biggest patent aggressor, claiming in a variety of lawsuits that Android handset makers have stolen ideas such as the square design of a tablet and the ability to launch a dialer when tapping a phone number in an email message. The company managed to block some of its competitors products from the market—at least temporarily—obtaining import bans for HTC in the U.S. and Samsung in Australia and Germany at various points. Expect 2012 to bring a whole new round of suits and countersuits.
Google Brings Android to Tablets with Honeycomb
Though a few Android tablets came out in 2010—the original Samsung Galaxy Tab stands out—all of these devices ran Android 2.2 or earlier, operating systems that were designed for 3- or 4-inch phones rather than 7- to 10-inch slates. All that changed last spring when Google released Android 3.0, a version of its operating system that's specially designed for tablets. Codenamed Honeycomb, the new operating system featured such large screen-friendly features as improved task switching, dual-paned apps, and a button-free interface With the release of Honeycomb came scores of new devices from companies such as Acer, Lenovo, and Toshiba, none of whom had released an Android tablet before. By the end of the year, consumers had more than a dozen major Android choices, including some with 4G connectivity and quad-core processors. Unfortunately, there are still only about 5,000 Android apps designed to take advantage of tablets' larger screens, compared to 140,000 iPad apps.
BlackBerry in Free Fall
2011 was another year of massive failures for Research in Motion, the company behind the formerly industry-leading BlackBerry smartphone platform. First RIM released its long-awaited PlayBook tablet without bothering to include native email or calendar applications. Even as sales faltered, the company continued releasing overpriced, underpowered phones such as the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and Torch 9850, neither of which even had 4G. Insult turned to injury in October, when users around the world suffered a multi-day email outage due to problems with the company's servers. The company's inability to deliver an update to its tablet software until at least February 2012 or to come out with its new BlackBerry 10 operating system on phones until late next year don't bode well, either. No wonder the company's U.S. market share has dropped from 49 to 10 percent in just two years.
3D Goes Mobile, Glasses-Free
While we saw a number of notebooks featuring Nvidia's 3DVision technology in 2010, 2011 was the year 3D dropped the glasses and came to handsets. At CES 2011, Toshiba showed off a glasses-free notebook that tracks users' eye movements in order to provide three-dimensional images without the need for glasses. This product later hit the market as the Toshiba Qosmio F775, which provided sharp but shallow 3D effects that couldn't match up to those on regular active-shutter 3D notebooks such as the Toshiba Qosmio X775. At Mobile World Congress in Feburary, LG showed off the first stereoscopic 3D phone. Since then, both LG and HTC have hit the market with 3D handsets in the HTC EVO 3D and the LG Thrill 4G. LG also released the T-Mobile G-Slate that had dual cameras for shooting photos and videos in 3D, though you needed glasses to see the extra dimension.
iPhone 4S Launches on 3 out of 4 Carriers
Remember way back in 2010 when only AT&T customers could buy the iPhone? Oh, how times have changed. In the February of 2011, Verizon started selling the iPhone 4 and Sprint joined the party this past October by adding the new iPhone 4S to its lineup. T-Mobile remains the only national carrier not to stock the iPhone. The first weekend of sales topped 4 million iPhone 4S devices, thanks in large part to the buzz surrounding the very intelligent Siri voice-controlled assistant.
Ultrabooks Try to Make Laptops Sexy Again
With many consumers purchasing tablets rather than upgrading their old notebooks, Intel created a new product category designed to make laptops more appealing to the masses. Dubbed Ultrabooks, this new class of notebooks is designed in the mold of Apple's super-svelte MacBook Air: thin, light, fast booting, and long lasting. Intel even created a $300 million fund to help companies develop new, smaller components and other technologies that benefit the Ultrabook. The first generation of Ultrabooks launched this past fall with notable contributions like the ASUS ZenBook UX31 and Toshiba Portege Z835, but while these devices looked good, none of them matched the speed or usability of the Air. We expect to see a whole new generation of Ultrabooks based on Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge platform in 2012 and analysts expect Ultrabooks to make up 40 percent of the notebook market by 2015.
- Ultrabook Showdown: Which is Best?
- MacBook Air 13-inch Review
- Ultrabook Makers Not Learning Lessons of the MacBook Air
HP Goes Bipolar
From the world's leading PC maker to the tech industry's biggest waffler, HP made and then unmade some key decisions in 2011, leaving even its most ardent supporters scratching their heads. First, the company launched the HP TouchPad, the first tablet to feature webOS, an operating system originally developed by Palm before HP bought that company in 2010. After some negative reviews and 56 unsuccessful days, the company decided to kill both the TouchPad and all hardware based on webOS. Then, CEO Leo Apotheker announced the company was thinking of selling or otherwise "spinning off" its industry-leading PC division so it could focus more on services. Unfortunately for Apotheker, HP's stock dropped like a rock and he was replaced by former eBay CEO and California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman within a few weeks of his pronouncements on webOS and the PC division. A few weeks after taking office, Whitman announced that the company would be keeping its PC division and making Windows 8 tablets. Then, in December, the company announced that it would continue webOS as an open source project and even release new webOS devices in 2013. We're still scratching our heads.
Nokia Bets on Windows Phone
Nokia was once the world's leading phone maker, but by 2011 the Symbian OS it used on all its phones had grown very long in the tooth. The company had also lost confidence in MeeGo, a new mobile platform it was developing with Intel. CEO Stephen Elop went so far as to describe the company's OS strategy as a "burning platform" that Nokia needed to jump off of in order to survive. To put his company on firmer footing, Elop inked a major partnership with Microsoft and agreed to make Windows Phone the new operating system for Nokia's smartphones, a promise he fulfilled in October when the company unveiled its Lumia 710 and Lumia 800 phones,one of the best-looking Windows Phones we've seen. Look for the 710 to land on T-Mobile in the U.S. in January 2012. The Lumia 800 will follow shortly thereafter, presumably with 4G LTE technology.
Microsoft Debuts Windows 8
Though Windows tablets were barely a blip on anyone's radar in 2011, Microsoft hopes to change that in 2012 with the introduction of its upcoming Windows 8 OS. In June 2011, Microsoft demoed Windows 8 for the first time and in September the company released a preview version that anyone can download. Designed to work on both tablets and PCs, Windows 8 will have a unique, touch-friendly interface that replaces the window metaphor with dynamic Live Tiles (similar to Windows Phone) and the ability to run on ARM-based processors such as Nvidia's Tegra 3 CPU. Could this OS make Microsoft the king of slates?