As 2011 draws to a close it’s the perfect time for me to decompress the year, to pull it apart like an accordion, stretching it wide so I can see the events, big and small, that gave 2011 its character. Those on the top edge of those accordion folds are the year’s winners, while the others living in the channels are its losers.
That’s a simple way of looking at it. The other possibility is that some companies and industry players like Netflix sit along the top edge because you couldn’t ignore the meltdown — it was just too loud, too unbelievable. Either way, what follows is a look at the highs and lows. The victors and…the other guys.
It’s true, the Amazon Kindle Fire is a flawed, 1.0 product that may have been rushed out to market. On the other hand, it costs just $199, is incredibly effective for content consumption and is selling like hot cakes. Some analysts believe it will sell 4 million units by the end of this holiday season.
Loser: Brick-and-Mortar Retailers
It’s getting tougher and tougher for old-school retailers to get consumers into their stores. This year Amazon managed to make the situation worse by offering consumers a special discount just for using Amazon’s mobile shopping tool while in other people’s stores. I’ve done my share of price comparisons on my smartphone while in my local Best Buy. Invariably, I find cheaper prices elsewhere. Yet, Amazon’s move has garnered it this year’s “Grinch Award.”
No doubt 2011 will be remembered as one of Apple’s most difficult years. Yet, even as it grapples with the difficult loss of its founder and leader, Steve Jobs, the company has been knocking it out of the park on almost every other level. The Apple iPad tablet may be the prime example of the company’s success in 2011. While not a reimagining of the first blockbuster tablet, the iPad 2 turned out to be a near pitch-perfect follow-up and helped drive sales of the iPad to over 40 million units. No one else in the tablet space has even come close (though the Kindle Fire shows potential).
Though some may criticize Apple for the iPhone 5 no-show, I’d say Apple did what it always does — let the hype mill drive up near insane-levels of interest for its new phone. The iPhone 4S is a comparatively minor upgrade to the iPhone 4, but that didn’t seem to matter as Siri sucked up virtually all tech coverage for weeks and Apple may be heading to a stellar iPhone 4S sales quarter.
I finally finished the 600-plus-page tome that is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Job’s Biography. Jobs was, in some ways, a very odd and inscrutable man. However, I’ve also come to the realization that losing Steve Jobs robbed us of one of the truly singular minds in the tech industry. Apple marches on, but Jobs will never be replicated.
When it sold its desktop and laptop business to Lenovo nearly a decade ago, IBM dropped out of the consumer tech business. Yet here it is on my list, and all because it conducted perhaps the best tech stunt of all time: Watson versus Jeopardy. The nation was transfixed as IBM’s powerfully smart supercomputer traded wits with former Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. It was oddly exciting, but also no contest as Watson won handily. As a result, for the first time in ages, consumers were talking about IBM again and what Watson could mean for the world. Well done, IBM.
The well-chronicled HP TouchPad debacle was a stunner, to be sure. As I said, I was at the launch event, a bright sunny day along the shore of San Francisco Bay, so full of promise. I have never seen such an abrupt about-face. The product rollout was in February. The TouchPad arrived in stores in mid-summer and was dead on arrival by August. Things only got weirder when HP conducted a rare hot-tech fire sale. Consumers and gadget freaks scooped up those $99 TouchPads faster than you could say “WebOS.” Still, the temporary reprieve only served to confuse most in the industry, and it was clear that HP had bigger problems than just a failed tablet launch.
Winner: Meg Whitman
Meg Whitman lost her bid for California Governor, but that was so 2010. In 2011, the former eBay chief reentered the tech industry, taking over for misguided HP CEO Leo Apotheker (see above) and doing a number of things right:
- Making it clear that HP is not abandoning the PC business.
- Saving WebOS from oblivion by making it an open source platform, and
- Promising tablets in 2013. You’ll pardon me if I take that last with a grain of salt.
The Arab Spring gained momentum in Egypt and was, in part, propelled forward by an almost unprecedented use of social networks for disseminating information and gathering support. As the Egyptian government fought back, it actually blocked Twitter — a clear sign that the use of the micro blogging service during the uprising had it worried.
Eventually, other tech companies stepped in to help the Egyptian people get around these technological roadblocks. That compulsion to use social networks to drive social change ultimately helped spark other revolutionary acts throughout that part of the world, and some still play out today. Still, Egypt was the first to emerge with a new government and direction.
Two big changes occurred in the World of Internet Domains: First ICANN decided to open up the world of TLDs (Top level Domains, which are the suffixes at the end of web site URLs) to a much, much wider variety of names. Second it finally made .XXX domains available for registration. ICANN’s effort to simultaneously broaden the web and control some of its darkest corners, may have some unintended consequences. Too many TLDs could mean that brand names need to start worrying again about someone buying www.[SOMETHING].McDonalds or www.[SOMETHING].BestBuy. On the XXX front, all the wrong people are racing to buy porn domains, simply to protect themselves. ICANN may have seriously misfired in 2011.
2011 was the year Android officially became the dominant smart phone platform. While Apple enjoys continued success and sales with its iPhone and iOS platform, it gets just a few major launches (iPad, iPhone, iPod) each year. For Google and Android, almost every day is launch day. Countless manufacturers and carriers are constantly rolling out new Android handsets. Sure, they’re not all in alignment like iOS phones. There are phones running Android 2.2, 2.3, and even a few running 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
None of this bothers consumers, who are eagerly buying handsets like the Samsung Galaxy II, the Verizon Thunderbolt, EVO 4G and others. That strength is further illustrated by the Android Market’s rapid growth — it reached 10 billion downloads in record time, a milestone Apple’s App store celebrated at the start of this year.
Loser: Most Android Tablet Manufacturers
Sorry, but the number of Android Tablets sold this year simply isn’t that impressive. Plus, the Galaxy Tabs, Motorola Xooms and Toshiba Thrives (perhaps the wrong name to go with) of the world have been embarrassed by the easy success of the Amazon Kindle Fire and, to a lesser extent, by Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet, both of which run on Android 2.3 (That’s right — nether runs the more tablet-friendly Honeycomb, A.K.A. Android 3.0).
Research in Motion (RIM) has had a tough year. Its proprietary OS-running PlayBook had all the earmarks of a breakout success, until RIM badly bungled the rollout (sorry, no email for you). The company continues to back the product, but no one seems to care or notice that the Kindle Fire is virtually the same hardware, but with a better ecosystem.
A massive service outage and RIM’s late public response compounded the company’s woes. All the while it has continued to roll out nifty new handsets that, at least, BlackBerry devotees care about. Yet, just when RIM was getting back on track, it misstepped again. Most recently, a couple of its exec got booted from an airplane for drunkenness and then it had to give up its own unified OS name “BBX” because another company already owned it. Nothing that’s happened to RIM is truly ruinous, and I think the company can get back on track in 2012 — at least I hope it can.
Millions of Verizon customers finally got their wish early this year when Apple and Verizon announced the first CDMA iPhone. The phone itself was almost exactly like the AT&T iPhone but with a few crucial differences, including a reconfigured Antenna Bar (less attenuation) and personal hotspots (tethering to an iPhone!). This was the beginning of a trend in the U.S. for Apple as it eventually spread the iPhone love to Sprint.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings will likely want to forget 2011, a year that started with such promise as he took the stage at CES 2011, saying how he planned on being CEO for the next decade or more. Even as late as June of this year, Hastings was still feeling good, talking casually about how the DVD business would eventually go away and sharing, perhaps too candidly, the hurdles Netflix faced as it tried to resign major studios to its unbelievably successful streaming business. Even when Netflix announced over the summer that it planned to essentially double fees by asking customers to pay $8 for the baseline DVD delivery service and another $8 for streaming access, no one sounded the alarm bells.
However, when the day of the big change arrived, customer reaction was decidedly negative. Every attempt Netflix made to clean up the mess only served to make it worse (Quickster, anyone?). Things have finally quieted down, but it’s unlikely Netflix or Reed Hastings will ever be the same.
Google is a winner this year for many reasons (see the Android surge above), but it’s Google’s successful launch of a new social network, Google+, which deserves special mention.
No, it’s not a huge success yet. The platform may have roughly 40 million users, but it’s still too full of industry insiders, and most average Facebook users have likely never heard of it. However, I’m sure they will. Google+ is a well-thought-out, highly extensible platform. It’s also one that increasingly ties into everything else Google is doing, like YouTube, Gmail, contacts and more. Google’s grand vision is coming into focus, and Google+ may be at the center of it. It deserves high praise for launching it this year.
Loser: Zune HD Player
This misbegotten, yet elegant piece of hardware never stood a chance — not because the Apple iPod was so powerful, but because Microsoft never married its excellent Zune HD hardware to a brilliant ecosystem or a halfway-decent marketing campaign.
Microsoft learned from this and is showing signs of building something under the Metro interface design and Zune Marketplace that could comprise an ecosystem. Plus, I like what I’m seeing in their marketing campaigns. Better yet, the Zune lives, sort of, in all Windows Phones.
Microsoft is “winning” on many fronts in 2011. Though I do not yet understand how a Metro interface and standard Windows interface can live on one system, I love that Microsoft has finally adopted a universal design language for its consumer products. Metro on Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox is a very Apple-like move, and a smart one for the 21st century.
Microsoft also did stellar Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 10 business in 2011. These products are the company’s bread and butter and strong numbers for them every single quarter are a necessity — and a reality. Kinect was a breakout hit, and the company has held its own on the browser front (this year’s biggest loser in that department is likely Firefox), and Bing, though still second, has gained a bit of ground on Google search.