I’d love to say that the Android operating system
for smartphones was the story of the year. Google introduced Android
in 2009, though it wasn’t until this year that the myriad phones based on Android software sold in numbers high enough to give the market leaders — Research in Motion’s BlackBerry
and Apple’s iPhone
— the willies. And they did so with a vengeance. It must have been galling to RIM and Apple, which have been toiling in the smartphone vineyard for a few years now, to watch an interloper like Google, which had never even been in the cellphone business, become a threat overnight.
Well, not a complete threat. Google’s attempt to sell the Nexus One
phone (known as “the Google Phone”) exclusively from its online store beginning in January, 2010, failed after only three months. Google gave it to be sold through individual cellphone service providers, and then it became just another product competing with all the other phones that were licensed to run the Android operating system. It was puzzling that the magic of Google’s name worked so well with the software, but not with the hardware.
The success of the Android system was then largely left to be carried by individual phones, the most notable of them being the Motorola Milestone
, which is what the world outside of the United States calls the Droid. The Milestone/Droid has an impressively heavy, solid feel and a universally satisfying response to its operation. It was as much responsible for the success of the Android operating system as for Motorola’s renewed market strength.
But Android wasn’t the biggest story of 2010. That was the arrival in April of Apple’s tablet computer, the iPad
For years, different technologies have been hurtling at each other in a kind of Big Bang collision, in which the only possible outcome is ultra-ultra-miniaturization. Cellphone makers have all become obsessed with miniaturization to the point that a cellphone will eventually become as functional as a desktop computer. Recognizing that they aren’t quite there yet, the makers invented the word “smartphone” to suggest their phones are a lot … well, smarter … than cellphones, though not quite as smart as desktop computers. Otherwise they’d be called computers.
Apple’s iPad has emerged as a force in the stately procession from technology’s primordial ooze to bi-pedal mobility. Though it isn’t a phone, it’s pretty close to being one, blurring the lines between the two by employing interchangeable applications, or “apps,”
which are at the heart of the iPhone. All of this adds up to the conviction that the iPhone is the driving force behind the iPad, and that iTunes is the force behind the iPhone. Moreover, Apple’s most recent earnings report shows that quarterly sales of the iPhone were up 91 per cent, to 14.1 million.
Until mid-October, Apple seemed to be so intent on placing most of its eggs in the iPad/iPhone/iTunes basket that it appeared to be neglecting its desktop computer division, at least since introducing the MacBook Air back in 2008. Interestingly, that laptop was described then as an “ultraportable,” and proved to be only minimally thicker and larger than the iPad. Further miniaturization will soon make any difference between the two negligible.
But that was not exactly the next step. In October, Apple reminded everyone that it was still in the computer business, announcing an “all new” MacBook Air
, which it touted as the herald of a new kind of notebook computer replacing mechanical hard disks with solid-state flash storage and optical drives with Internet services. And that is essentially what the iPad has. It doesn’t take a genius to draw a line from Apple’s ever-thinner MacBook notebook computer through the iPad and then the iPhone to see where the company is going.
So profound was the iPad’s impact that almost every other handset maker has announced its own entry in the tablet-computer field. BlackBerry is set to release the PlayBook
, followed by others from Samsung (the Galaxy Tab
), Dell (The Streak
), Microsoft (the Courier
) and LG (the UX-10
Samsung is taking this a step further, partnering with desktop virtualization specialist Citrix to outfit Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphone and Galaxy Tab tablet PC with access to virtual desktops and business applications, resource-hungry database programs that can be run remotely by smartphones. That hardware will be running the Android operating system, which supports Google Mobile Services such as Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Google Talk and Android Market, among more than 60,000 other applications.
For its part, the BlackBerry PlayBook is trying to be a bit of both
. It will have a smaller screen (7 inches, as compared to the iPad’s 10) and be even thinner than the iPad, though like the iPad it will not (at least for now) include a phone. It will also run on a new operating system, the BlackBerry Tablet OS, based on QNX Neutrino
, made by a Canadian company RIM bought earlier this year. Both screen size and the new operating system have made it the target of Steven Jobs’ recent rebarbative comments, sneering at the Playbook's smaller screen and the operating system, which is different from the one running in RIM’s BlackBerry Torch, released in September.
The sneering, however, suggests that Jobs is still seriously worried about RIM, which has made huge inroads with corporate and governmental users, while the appeal of the iPhone and the iPad is still stronger among consumers. Certainly, the BlackBerry Torch, released in September, is a phone that has opened the door to more recreational applications without compromising its no-nonsense appeal.
What’s particularly odd about the three front-runners is that all of them are attempting, in one way or another, to be closed systems. The BlackBerry works best with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, but for individual users it requires a physical USB cable to sync with Microsoft Outlook contacts, calendar and tasks on your desktop. Apple wants to keep you buying apps, music, reading material and entertainment from its iTunes store, over which Apple exercises extensive control. And Android steers you to Gmail
if you want to synch your PIM stuff, so Android users are pretty much limited to moving their entire e-mail setup to Google’s Gmail system; if you want to synchronize its calendar, tasks and contacts list with a desktop application, such as Microsoft Outlook, you’re pretty much on your own. All three make for a very coercive system no matter which phone you buy into.
It’s all part of the volatility of the smartphone market — and Nokia
is a good example of that. Once the most important player among handset makers, the Finnish company seemed poised for even greater things in 2008 when it bought all shares it didn’t already own of Symbian, the maker of the operating system that was used by so many smartphones. But the successes of the BlackBerry, the iPhone and Android devices have, over the past couple of years, relegated Nokia to a lesser status, at least in North America.
In late summer, Nokia responded with the Nokia C6
and the Nokia N8
. Both phones are geared at social networkers, stressing connections between friends and family and a full QWERTY keyboard to make test messaging and email easier. But even diehard Nokia fans doubt Symbian will make any more headway in North America, where iPhone and Android owners find Symbian unfamiliar and less intuitive to use.
Nokia has also taken a leaf from Apple by creating an online applications shop, called the Ovi Store
, which boasts more than 1.7 million downloads worldwide per day, in more than 30 languages in 180 countries.
Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, has had surprisingly less success with cellphones than you’d think — call it zero. This summer, the software giant launched and after only three months dropped the Kin, an odd-looking social-networking phone
, thereby kissing goodbye to the billion dollars it sank into its development. Instead, it changed direction abruptly to introduce the Windows Phone 7 operating system
The new operating system has large tile icons and carefully organized applications, clearly geared at people who could be having a tough time with the tiny icons and sheer geekiness of the Androids and iPhones. Microsoft’s ads send the message (a phone that will give you your life back) for those who refuse to stare intently into their cellphones in public or any other awkward moments.
The market is perhaps the just-retiring Boomer generation. It’s not an insane move — the aging Boomers remain a significantly underexploited smartphone market, and one that has enough cash and time to dedicate to discovering its mysteries.
Still, the company is hedging its bets — Windows Phone 7 will be the first phone to connect to the Xbox Live game system, although it remains to be seen how many people will want to spend their retirement years playing Need for Speed, Undercover and The Sims 3. Or how many want to use their phones as MP3 players simply because Windows Phone 7 integrates with Microsoft’s Zune music system.
Microsoft also had no online app store at the time it announced the Windows Phone 7 operating system. That’s a dangerous thing to be without when clearly cellphone success depends on offering buyers a vast array of little apps, all of which give the appearance that the cellphone on which they run can be seen as, well, a small computer.
But Microsoft has been thinking a little bigger with this system; it has lined up more than 60 mobile operators in 30 countries and a series of hardware makers (including Dell, HTC Corp., LG and Samsung) to bring Windows Phones to market. In Canada, Windows Phone 7 will appear on the HTC Surround
and the LG Optimus
(both from Telus), the LG Optimus Quantum
(Bell) and the Samsung Focus
Aside from the long view — Smartphones ultimately becoming almost indistinguishable from low-powered computers — it’s hard to see how next year will shape up. Certainly all the major players are duking it out without suggesting a clear winner.
Then again, who wants a clear winner? All this competition is offering us a better and larger choice of smartphone.
Part 1 of The Hottest Technology of 2010: Television.
Part 3 of The Hottest Tech of the Year: Cameras.
Part 4 of The Hottest Technology of 2010: Printers