The State of Tech 2010

Once again it’s time for me to ramble about some of the interesting technology developments that happened this year.

And what a year! Before starting this post, I went back to re-read my 2009 post.  It seems like almost every question I concluded with was answered in some way in 2010. Last year, I summed up the year as being more evolution than revolution.  While I hesitate to say that this year was revolution, it was certainly more than the evolution of last year. So why don’t we get started?

Mobile
The end of 2009 was dominated by Apple Tablet rumors – so, it was probably no surprise that 2010 started with Apple announcing the iPad.  When it was revealed, I don’t think anyone in the tech world was particularly impressed.  Many geeks were hoping for a touch-enabled version of OS X, but instead they got a large iPod Touch.

From a power user’s perspective, the iPad is still lacking in many ways.  But its success in the marketplace shows that regular users enjoy its simplicity and convenience.  Indeed, the fact that you can do most common computing on such a small, relatively lightweight hunk of metal and glass, is very alluring.

Personally, I feel like the iPad has already reached its peak. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think there is potential to do more, and I look forward to seeing how Apple improves it in the next revision. The iPad is a neat toy in its current state, but not compelling enough to buy. The next revision may change that, though.

The other big news in the mobile space was the release of Windows Mobile 7.  Things were looking dire for Microsoft when it came to Windows Mobile. The previous versions were a mess, and didn’t stand a chance when compared to iPhone or Android.  Much to Microsoft’s credit, though, the company came roaring out of the gate with a mobile operating system that not only brought the OS to the same realm as more modern smartphones, but also readily surpassed them.

While there are still many improvements to be made, the foundation is solid.  The metro UI – lots of stylized text, with images for emphasis – has served Microsoft well, and is a perfect fit for smaller screens like the Zune HD and Windows Mobile. The hub interface is also perfect for a connected device like Windows Mobile.  Instead of jumping in and out of apps, you can move to one category – music, for example – and get all your content in that one section, whether it be Zune, Pandora, or something else.  Microsoft says they have big plans for Windows Mobile 7, and that they’re in the game for the long haul.  Lets hope so – there is a lot of promise here, and if nothing else, Apple and Google need to pay attention.

And speaking of Apple and Google, they both released their usual string of updates and improvements, but nothing particularly noteworthy.  Apple revised the hardware on the iPhone, which was a much-needed refresh.  Despite a few issues with the antenna, it was enough to keep the phone interesting.  On the software side, they introduced a limited version of multi-tasking. It’s a good stopgap solution, but it’s not ideal.  In my experience, many apps still don’t work well with it, and, when it does work, it usually doesn’t feel like multitasking.  Google is steadily improving Android; but, personally, I haven’t seen anything that has compelled me to switch. The inconsistency between Android versions, and the devices they can be used on, makes it even more difficult to commit to the platform. Hopefully this is something that will be handled better in future.

Computers
Last year, both Windows and OS X got big updates. So it’s not surprising that this year was relatively quiet.

ChromeOS finally became more than just a concept. As part of a pilot program, Google is sending out laptops tailored specifically for the new OS.  Initial feedback has been mixed – the hardware is understated and elegant in its simplicity, but the software quickly highlights the limitations of working only on the web.  It will be interesting to see how it develops, but there are definitely still uses for a traditional laptop with local storage and applications. Just like last year, I have issues with an OS where you don’t own any of the data on it.

Apple also gave a few teaser details about the next version of OS X: Lion.  They touted it as a version of OS X that inherits some of the things they’ve learned from their mobile iOS.  This includes features such as instant on, constant state, full screen applications, and a springboard-style app launcher.  Apple didn’t provide enough information to make any final evaluations, but I have worries that OS X is going to get dumbed down into an iOS package.  As it stands now, these are minor changes that feel a bit out of place on a full-featured desktop operating system.  So the question is, how much more will Apple change OS X in order to make these iOS features feel integrated?

Another iOS feature that is coming to OS X is an app store.  The Mac App Store is coming out the beginning of 2011, and I’m looking forward to it.  Unfortunately, developers have to play by Apple’s rules – but if they do that, it should bring the same amount of attention to OS X apps that iOS apps have enjoyed since the iPhone’s release.

Game Consoles
Last year, both Microsoft and Sony revealed the details of their motion control strategies.  This year, things were finalized as XBOX Kinect and Playstation Move.  The two products were released this fall to tepid reviews.  If I were to make a guess, it would appear as though the Playstation Move had a slight advantage, just because it manages to be extremely accurate in translating your actual movements into the game in real time.  The problem with the Playstation Move, though, is that it’s a lot like the Wii.  It forces you to hold a primary motion controller, and sometimes a secondary accessory controller.  It’s nice that it has more accurate motion tracking, but the game concepts for this type of scenario have already been played out.  It’s tired.  Perhaps the PS3’s high definition graphics will open up some new opportunities? It seems doubtful.

On the other side is Microsoft’s Kinect, which is a lot more unique in a couple of aspects.  Perhaps most notable is the fact that there are no controllers involved at all – everything is done through the various cameras built into the Kinect add-on.  As far as gaming goes, this does provide some potentially unique gameplay opportunities. One such opportunity is demonstrated with Dance Central, a launch title for Kinect.  Since the peripheral can track your body’s position in 3D space, it knows if you are reproducing the moves correctly.  But games like this are limited in scope – how many different ways can a game be controlled by your body in a logical way?

The long term success of these console add-ons will be determined by how third parties make use of the technology in their games.  But an early win can already be given to the Kinect for something completely unrelated to its XBOX connection.  Thanks to the work of many tinkerers and hackers, drivers have been created to allow the peripheral to communicate with other devices.  In doing so, much has been learned about how Kinect maps 3D space, and what potential that unlocks.  Already there are tech demos of possible gaming applications, as well as controlling a device through motion alone (such as pausing or fast forwarding a movie, something Microsoft has only dabbled in itself).

Conclusion
While it doesn’t seem like anything particularly revolutionary occurred this year, it was much more active than 2009.  I can see 2011 being mostly a reaction to everything that was released this year: how will Windows Phone 7 develop? Will Apple make any aggressive changes to the iPhone to keep up with increasingly viable competition? Will there be a new iPad? Will OS X Lion begin the age of iOS Ultimate Edition?  Will Microsoft talk publically about Windows 8?  Will Playstation Move or XBOX Kinect gain any sort of foothold? As always, only time will tell!

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