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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

From Android to Spotify: Top Tech of 2009

What digital developments moved you in the last 12 months? Spotify? Kindle 2? Google Latitude? Rhodri Marsden marvels at the machines of 2009 and drools over the technology due in 2010.

It was all the fun of the share in 2009. If a gadget or a piece of software didn’t allow you to share something or other with other people, it scarcely seemed worth buying. And, as ever, our uninhibited surrender of personal information raised substantial privacy concerns.

Google sat centre stage in the debate; last year had already seen the company receive criticism over its Street View service – a fairly benign collection of city photos – but the release of Google Latitude, a service where you share details of your location with friends, provided a more substantial worry for privacy campaigners. Google-fear reached such absurdity that the launch of Goggles, a picture recognition search engine, immediately sparked discussion about how it might be used as a face recognition tool to dig up information about us online – a possibility flatly denied by Google.

Microsoft sought to dent Google’s internet dominance with the launch of its Bing search engine, which quickly leapt over Yahoo! into a very distant second place. But it could take consolation from the positive reaction to Windows 7, the successor to the much-maligned Vista operating system.

Apple, meanwhile, seemed relatively unscathed by the news at the beginning of this year that CEO Steve Jobs was going to be taking a back seat while undergoing a liver transplant; the iPhone 3GS was universally cooed over, while the new Mac operating system, Snow Leopard, effortlessly became Apple’s best seller.

Five to watch

1 Google’s push into mobile. Google is rumoured to be launching its own handset, the Nexus One, on 5 January on both sides of the Atlantic – but the success of mobile phones is becoming much less about the handset, and more about the software they’re running. Google Android will be appearing on a large number of cheaper phones in the next 12 months, and may dent the iPhone’s dominance.

2 The long-awaited Apple tablet. Does an Apple touchscreen computer straddling the line between netbook and iPhone, even exist? Or is it, as one commentator put it, “the most masterfully conceived shadow marketing campaign ever”? If it does appear in 2010, the most fascinating effect will be on the burgeoning e-reading market.

3 The move to the cloud. The benefits of storing data online rather than on your computer are still a mystery to many, but the expansion of Google’s App Engine and the launch of Microsoft’s Azure Platform on 1 January both indicate that we’ll be running more software direct from the web, too.

4 The life recorder. The quantity of personal data you own will take an almost surreal leap with the appearance of life recorders; they hang around your neck, capturing photos, video, sound and location data, like a personal black box.

5 Flexi-displays. Taiwanese manufacturer Wistron is rumoured to be launching an e-reader next year with a flexible, pull-out display – heralding a new era of affordable and foldable electronics.

The gadgets of the year

Pocket camcorders became the latest lozenge-shaped device to pop into your pocket. HD models made by Flip stood out: the cute, stylish Mino, and its ugly sister the Ultra, which looked more like some chunky 1970s sci-fi hand-held teleportation device but delivered fantastic video quality. Video recording capability also came to the iPhone with the launch of the 3GS, while the T-Mobile Pulse and Motorola DEXT, both running on Google’s Android platform, both dropped substantial hints that Apple isn’t going to have it all it’s own way in the smartphone market. The DEXT consolidated all your social networking accounts into the heart of its system, ushering in a new era of keeping preposterously in touch while on the move, while Pure’s much-praised Sensia radio also incorporated social networking tools – but, more impressively, allowed you to pause and rewind live radio.

Two developments felt more than a little space-age. Dyson’s Bladeless fan may cost 10 times more than its bladed cousin, but its appearance – a pedestal-mounted ring that gently pushes air towards you – made it the gadget most likely to be gawped at. Meanwhile, the quest for an end to multiple chargers hotted up: the Powermat brought wireless recharging to owners of Blackberries, Nintendo DSs and iPhones for a sub-£100 price tag. PowerPad and WildCharge, both offering wireless chargers, also entered the fray.

Five tech turkeys of 2009

1 Microsoft’s online advertising. Microsoft began the year with a video advert for its dubious sing-along musical tool, Songsmith, that was so excruciating that doubts were expressed over its veracity. It was real – and so was the promotional video for Windows 7, in which a group of four people extolled the virtue of using Windows 7 to host your own Windows 7 launch party. Anyone making it through to the end of either video deserved awards for endurance – but if they hadn’t been so notoriously awful, would they have achieved such enormous viewing figures?

2 Predictions of global computer meltdown. The “Conficker” worm was estimated to have put some 10 million machines under the control of hackers, and hysterical reports suggested that 1 April 2009 would see criminal masterminds put evil plans for world domination into practice. Maybe said masterminds were so spooked by the magnitude of their success that they did nothing; in any case, we all just used Microsoft’s removal tool to get rid of it, and promptly forgot about it.

3 Apple banning apps from the App Store. The often arcane criteria for approving new apps proved baffling to many, and many developers threatened abandoning the iPhone platform altogether in favour of Google’s Android, where they could at least be certain of their app being made available to the public, even if the public didn’t want to buy it.

4 Attempts to curtail The Pirate Bay. Four founders of the filesharing site were convicted in April 2009 of breaking Swedish copyright law, fined £2.4m and sentenced to a year in jail. The appeal process is set to take years, and in the meantime the site continues to flourish.

5 Google Wave. Invitations to Google’s new real-time collaborative internet tool were hotly pursued, even selling for up to $70 on eBay. But once people had joined, the cry was unanimous: “But what does it do?” We still don’t have a clue, and we’re hoping for enlightenment in 2010.

The socialweb

It was the year when the world was forced to take social networking seriously. These websites were no longer merely playgrounds for bored students or receptacles for inconsequential blather – although they certainly continued to be both of these things – but finally became the long-predicted “pulse of society”. Back in January, umpteen newspaper articles were mocking “celebrity tweeting”, but at the end of the year the verb “to tweet” is even being deployed without quotation marks. While people deserted MySpace in their droves (including at least one of its co-founders), Twitter and Facebook surged forward.

They demonstrated an extraordinary ability to quickly bond people together in a cause: the controversial court ruling that stopped newspapers reporting the text of a parliamentary question relating to Trafigura, the oil trader connected with dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast, was quickly rendered preposterous by mass distribution of said question online, while collective anger at the content of an article about the death of Boyzone member Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail caused the biggest number of complaints ever received by the Press Complaints Commission. Even the supposedly inevitable rise of an X Factor winner to the top of the Christmas charts was halted by a social networking campaign. Whether you see it as a herd mentality, mob rule or just likeminded people making connections, its effect on the real world became profound and unignorable.

Listening, watching, reading...

The furore surrounding the illegal downloading of music was no quieter at the end of the decade than it was at the beginning, with the music industry, the government and internet service providers exchanging harsh words as the controversial Digital Economy bill lumbered its way towards the statute book. Notes of optimism were struck over our willingness to shell out for music for games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero – but the most fundamental change to music consumption habits was the take-up of Scandinavian streaming service Spotify.

While we got to grips with the concept of an exhaustive (and free) digital jukebox, however, the industry fretted over the economics of streaming following meagre advertising revenues. We embraced video streaming, too; BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time drove take-up of the BBC iPlayer service, with requests in October up 70 per cent. The British gave e-readers a wide berth, not least because Amazon’s Kindle device is still only available on import with a customs charge tacked on; the displacement of books by such devices looks set to take longer than the iPod’s triumph over the CD.

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