2011 was when the smartphone reached its peak, leaving the tablet as the go-to device for makers to aim at. But, the rules in tech are changing, meaning a lot of players went home empty-handed while apps became the focus for users settled into their smartphone OS of choice.
Springing No Surprises
The year started with Google's Android 3.0 operating system (aka Honeycomb with its tablet-centric features) being previewed, closely followed an peek at the new iOS (version 4.3) from Apple. Those events set the pattern for the year -- we saw incremental updates here and there, although users always wanted to see bigger, better things.
One thing became increasingly clear over the year: Smartphones have pretty much matured and are now stuck in the rut of power upgrades and pretty new fascias -- expecting the Voice of God to ring from the next big upgrade just isn't going to happen anymore. So, it was to the tablet market that the big players went running.
Focus On Tablets
The Honeycomb update should have put Android tablet builders on an even footing with the iPad, but somehow that never happened and anyone who tried the full-frontal approach of an assault on Apple's massive market share rapidly came unstuck.
February's Mobile World Congress was the launch point for most of the gadgets we've seen this year (and should be a cracking event in 2012). The first "proper" Galaxy Tab was on show and seemed to be set for great things. Then, along came the iPad 2 launched in March, with its thinner, lighter, more powerful frame, and its subsequent sales made its rivals efforts seem rather trivial in comparison.
Two leading examples were BlackBerry and HP, which spent vast sums creating and marketing two premium-priced products in the PlayBook and TouchPad, only for them to fail dismally within months of launch. Later in the year, Amazon would show them the proper way to tackle Apple's dominance.
Enterprise is Go
Over the year, 2010's many promises of enterprise for mobile started to come to fruition. This was led largely by the idea of social and unified collaboration as workers became more contactable and then able to interact with messages, discussions and then documents on the go. With office and cloud apps appearing from every corner, business has really taken the mobile form to heart and it is up to developers to remain in tune with user needs in this rapidly evolving landscape.
That will mean taking a great deal of notice how users relationships evolve with their devices and creating apps and services that meet the sweet spot between business needs and user abilities -- not just converting your existing apps and expecting business as usual.
Mark of the Mobile
Beyond the sexier design, slightly bigger screen, fewer buttons and more powerful chips, smartphones in 2011 seemed to be on a gap year. There have been dozens of high-end, and thousands of mid-range, Android devices, but whatever the latest Bionic-Droid-Thunderbolt-Sensation offered, nothing really demanded attention until the Nexus turned up at the end of the year, and since it's not even on sale yet, I think we can call that a 2012 phone by proxy.
When Apple did turn up on stage, the scene was set for the company to steal everyone's thunder and all it would have taken was a minor leap forward to do so. Instead we got the iPhone 4S, a single step forward, which came with a talking parrot trapped inside. And with that it looked like mobile was a complete bust for 2011.
However, 2012 looks like a far more lively year with the (already out in Europe and Asia) Nokia Lumia 800 and other Windows Phones doing the business in the U.S. They should offer a fresh choice to users and a new perspective on UI to the competition stuck in its lozenge-shaped ways.
If Lumia does well, then the competition will have to respond. If not, Microsoft may have to make an ignominious retreat from the mobile stage, although it has the resources to plow on for many years. Apple, though, must be looking at its five-year-old iOS and wonder how it can make it more relevant to the modern user without breaking things. That's probably the key thing to look for in 2012: A proper new iPhone with a proper new interface.
Year of the App
With the smartphone trench warfare settling into stalemate, users were looking for the best apps for our devices. While the quality of games and diversions is on an ever steeper curve. It seems social media apps can still vary wildly in quality and user acceptance.
Facebook got things right with its various updates, while Twitter managed to polarize users with its sweeping changes that added style and greater ease of use. A good rule here seems to be make interface changes optional as millions of users who've had basically the same system for a couple of years will get rather grumpy if you go changing things.
Distinctive apps were hard to come by in 2012. Everyone wanted to mimic Flipboard (which shuffled down from the iPad to the iPhone recently) or Instagram (like Color's disastrous attempt), while efforts like Social Radio and other innovations show there are plenty of clever ideas left for a bright future.
Great apps can appear in any section of your chosen store. Apple chose Starbucks, Skype and Nike Training Club among its "best of 2011" list. Android fans seem stoked on the likes of Glympse, WORKetc and PhotoWall listed among their favorites.
In 2012, expect more focus on apps, as all the power packed into phones is really only used by high-end games and for multi-tasking. Expect user interfaces to evolve to allow us better access to our information and data. Finally, while there will be endless hype over new phones and tablets, from now on -- they are just tools, and it's what we do with them that's important.