New products that made tech fans celebrate in 2008

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.

Smartphones

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.

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