There was no landslide winner as the most important tech product of 2008. But amidst the most challenging economic storm in decades, you could make a case for viable candidates.
Smartphones, especially Apple's iPhone 3G, got smarter, buoyed by the brand-new iTunes App Store.
Portable and inexpensive laptops, dubbed netbooks, got smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous.
There were innovative, if imperfect, new Web browsers from Microsoft (Internet Explorer 8), Mozilla (Firefox) and, most notably, Google (Chrome).
And Netflix, the company that built a business shipping DVDs by mail, began letting you instantly stream movies on a whole bunch of hardware components — from a clever $100 box from Roku to certain Blu-ray players.
Blu-ray itself was something of a story, if only because 2008 began with Hollywood choosing it as the preferred format for next-generation high-definition DVDs. For all the predictions about digital distribution of entertainment winning out long term — Netflix being one example — physical media will stick around for a while. By the end of the year, Blu-ray players were heavily discounted. I found one for less than $200 on Black Friday and would like to see prices drop even further.
This is the time of year when pundits reflect on the previous 12 months. I've been poring through a year's worth of products I tested for my Personal Technology columns. I'm also paying homage, if not quite breaking into a sweat, over some of the influential products I didn't actually review. For example, the Wii Fit exercise board from Nintendo helped the company continue to bulk up sales for its widely popular Wii video game system. I've also been gazing into my crystal ball. At least two tech stories are likely to dominate headlines in 2009.
On Feb. 17, television as we've known it since Howdy Doody will be altered forever. That's when broadcasters culminate the transition to digital TV by terminating their analog signals. The analog-to-digital converter boxes that will allow people to watch digital TV on older sets have sold surprisingly well, says NPD analyst Stephen Baker. "Everybody thought that people would just upgrade their televisions, but instead everybody went out and bought a box."
Meanwhile, Microsoft is widely expected to unveil the next major version of Windows next year. Suffice to say, it's way premature to weigh in on the viability of Windows 7 and how it might compare with Windows Vista. But industry guru Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies says it could be the technology that brings the tech world out of its economic doldrums. "Most major releases that Microsoft has brought out have spurred significant growth in the PC markets in the two years following," Bajarin says. Of course, Vista was an exception.
Here's a look at some of 2008's most interesting products, keeping in mind that saying a product is "important" doesn't mean it's unblemished.
July's iPhone 3G launch was more understated than the mind-boggling debut of the original iPhone. How could it not be? The $199 or $299 3G version was faster, cheaper (at least on the hardware side) and friendlier to business. Of course, with more than 10,000 applications, it is the iTunes App Store that most elevates the iPhone into an important new computing platform.
Drawbacks remain. The iPhone battery still wimps out way too fast for my taste, and AT&T's 3G network is lacking in some areas. There's no cut-and-paste, no video camera, nor turn-by-turn audio driving directions to go along with the iPhone's GPS location capabilities.
Still, the iPhone and the App Store have set a high bar for excellence that other companies are trying to live up to.
I was more positive than some on the $200 BlackBerry Storm from Verizon and Research In Motion, the first BlackBerry without a physical keyboard. But I'm sticking with the iPhone. Storm's most-hyped feature, the "clickable" tactile touch-screen, isn't nearly as user friendly as the iPhone's multitouch keyboard. You have to press down fairly hard, and the virtual keyboard doesn't adapt to what you're doing quite like the iPhone does.
Storm also lacks Wi-Fi, an omission that penalizes users who travel outside Verizon's robust cellphone data network.
But Storm boasts a lot of positives compared with the iPhone, starting with a superior battery. It has a lovely screen and a better camera, capable of shooting video. And it has other features Apple left out, including cut-and-paste, expandable memory and a removable battery.
RIM didn't abandon BlackBerry loyalists who want to stick with a physical keyboard. The BlackBerry Bold from AT&T is a fine new alternative.
Those expecting iPhone-like glitter and glitz were bound to be disappointed by the first Google phone, the $179 T-Mobile G1, made by HTC. It won't win any beauty contests. But the device is based on the slick and promising open-source Google Android mobile platform. And it has a slide-out physical keyboard to complement a touch interface. Expect to see other Android devices in the coming months. The "desktop" screen features a large clock and a few simple icons. Slide your finger to the left, and a Google search bar appears. If you run out of real estate for icons and such, you can find space by sliding your fingers in either direction.
Expect more smartphone innovation in 2009. Worth watching is the new mobile operating system that comes out of Palm, the onetime smartphone leader that has fallen on tough times.
One other refreshingly simple gadget is worth mentioning: the Peek. It looks like a BlackBerry but is not a phone. It's all about consumer e-mail. Cost is $100, plus a $20-a-month fee, with no required contract.
Purchasing a laptop has always come down to a balancing act over size, weight, price, features and ease of use. The streamlined machines known as netbooks won't break your back or your budget. Models are available from Acer, Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others.
Still, you have to give up something to get something, as I saw testing the Asus Eee PC 900 and HP Mini-Note 2133. Models can be found for under $400. The Asus, for example, boasts a petite form factor and relatively generous 8.9-inch screen. But it had limited storage and was challenging to type on. I liked the keyboard a lot better on the Mini-Note. But the battery was no great shakes. I had to squint to see the screen, and the placement of the mouse buttons drove me nuts.
Netbook prices continue to fall. RadioShack is selling the 2.2-pound Acer Aspire One for just $99, provided you commit to a two-year, $60-a-month contract with AT&T for wireless 3G data access. The price is $500 otherwise. Bajarin thinks moving to this cellphone-type subscriber model could shake up the industry. But "We think that $60-per-month price is way too high for consumers," he says.
This category should continue to evolve in 2009. Today's netbooks run on the Linux or XP platforms. Figure Microsoft is grappling with how to get into the netbook game with Windows 7. Another question: Will Apple unleash a netbook?
Mozilla unveiled the smart location, or Awesome Bar, on Firefox 3. Start typing and the browser serves up a drop-down list of Web destinations based on sites you've already visited, bookmarked or tagged.
In Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft added clickable buttons, or accelerators, that may appear when you highlight text on a page. You might select an address to map it or highlight a foreign phrase to translate it. Microsoft also added a Web slice feature to quickly monitor information on sites you frequently check.
Google made the biggest splash by introducing a spartan and fast browser called Chrome, which combines the address bar and search box. Chrome is still a little buggy, and its market share is puny compared with IE, Firefox and Apple's Safari. But keep an eye on Chrome long term as Google competes not only in the more traditional browser space but perhaps more broadly as an online platform that goes head-to-head against Windows.
As quick as Netflix is at shipping DVD rentals by mail, sometimes it's just not quick enough. The Netflix Player by Roku solved that problem to a point — only a fraction of the Netflix library was actually available for instant streaming. Still, the $99 Roku box provided subscribers with the ability to watch movies on TV without having to wait.
Netflix has since expanded the service to certain LG and Samsung Blu-ray players, along with the Xbox 360 and TiVo HD DVR. With just 12,000 titles — only a few in high definition — you still can't watch most box office bonanzas instantly.
It's worth seeing how the new Blockbuster OnDemand service does. The struggling retailer recently teamed with 2Wire on a MediaPoint Digital Media Player that stores DVD-quality movies for instant viewing.
The MediaPoint player is free if you rent 25 movies in advance for $99. Additional rentals cost $1.99 to $3.99. No subscription required. Blockbuster says new movies are typically available within 30 days of DVD release. But the movie library is even smaller than Netflix's.
I was intrigued by a couple of other offerings that promised a degree of movie-watching freedom. RealDVD from RealNetworks lets you copy, organize and play DVD movies on a laptop so you can leave the discs at home. Real CEO Rob Glaser said it was all legit. But RealDVD is now on hiatus because of legal action taken by studios against the company.
Hollywood has apparently given its blessing to Qflix technology from Sonic Solutions. It lets you download and burn movies so you can play them on any player. You'll need a Qflix burner from Dell, Plextor or Pioneer (near $100), special copy-protected discs (five-packs cost $5.99 to $10.99), and you must fetch films from CinemaNow, which Sonic is acquiring. Burn-to-DVD movies are $8.99 to $14.99, but fewer than 70 are available.
Microsoft goes into space, photography
It may seem to take light-years to boot up a PC with Windows Vista. But Microsoft sure can rocket you around outer space with its breathtaking and free WorldWide Telescope Web application. It's just one of the intriguing research projects the company launched this year.
WorldWide Telescope is a virtual space observatory that seamlessly weaves together 12 terabytes of data and stunning imagery from the world's finest telescopes. The immersive odyssey helps you grasp the cosmos' scale and vastness, on your own or through guided tours. You'll need a robust PC to explore the celestial outposts. Be ready to get lost in space: The interface is a little daunting.
Another project born out of Microsoft's labs is Photosynth, which aims to take panoramic stitching to a whole new level. The basic idea is to automatically stitch together a collection of snapshots you took, say, at Grant Park after Barack Obama's victory. The software transforms them into 360-degree, three-dimensional "synths" that are meant to place you at the core of a reconstructed scene. You navigate somewhat chaotically with your mouse and keyboard.
Photosynth forces you to think differently about the way you shoot pictures. Microsoft has just released a new viewer that takes advantage of the company's Silverlight video technology. Microsoft also says it's busily squashing Photosynth bugs — and presumably in the case of the WorldWide Telescope, space aliens.
Not every one of the year's most interesting products are fully polished or guaranteed to shine long term. But the results of 2008 in techdom suggest that even in turbulent times innovation is alive. Tech companies must muster up even more innovation in 2009 to generate sales against powerful economic headwinds.