2011: The year when it became the norm for a device to be the center of your world

December 28, 2011

As far as years in technology go, 2011 was one for the record books.

It wasn’t just about big battles, such as Apple vs. Samsung, Microsoft vs. Google, AT&T vs. the world or Hewlett-Packard vs. itself. It wasn’t just about the growth of apps and the ever-increasing pervasiveness of the Web in our daily lives, although there were plenty of amazing developments in both of these realms. It wasn’t just about hardware or software. And it wasn’t just about toeing the line or trying to hold onto it.

It was a year of incredible innovation, progress and excitement. It was a year when — despite all the political and economic chaos around us these days — optimism ruled. And how many other industries can you say that about right now?

While some long-entrenched businesses such as HP, Dell and Research in Motion found themselves challenged to do more and to do it better, other established players continued to wow consumers with their inventions. Apple and Google both had strong showings in 2011 with their flagship devices — the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S for the former and the Galaxy Nexus for the latter. Microsoft struggled to gain ground, but it has started showing signs of life in its partnership with Nokia and early designs for Windows 8.

The year will be remembered for an explosion of new thinking about how we interact with our devices. Whether it was the massive success of Microsoft’s Kinect gaming system or the interactive assistant Siri appearing on Apple’s iPhone 4s — it’s clear the way we use our devices is changing in a big way.

In 2011, whole-house or take-along music playback became more fun and easy with Apple pushing AirPlay and Bluetooth enjoying widespread adoption.

The year also brought us online projects that blew away our expectations, such as the inspired Web-based take on “The Great Gatsby.” (Yes, someone made a game based on an old Nintendo Entertainment System title in which you play as Nick Carraway and dodge Gatsby’s butler.) Or the terrific ‘Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery” (a role-playing game for the iPhone and iPad — the likes of which you’ve never seen). Or the charming “The Artist Is Present” by Pippin Barr, in which you visit Marina Abramovic’s titular performance-art piece in 8-bit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (If it’s open, that is — really, the virtual museum can be entered only during business hours.)

In other respects, 2011 was a year of utter weirdness. Some of my favorite products and apps this year were just plain bizarre, but in a good way.

Take the Nest thermostat, for instance. It “learns” your ideal temperature at different times of the day, senses when you’re in and out of the house and adjusts itself accordingly. Designed by one of the guys who built the iPod and iPhone, it’s a beautiful, intuitive device that reimagines the dials we’ve been turning for more than a hundred years.

This was also the year we saw things such as the Sphero — a glowing, iPhone-controlled ball that doesn’t seem to have any immediate purpose, but is insanely cool to play around with. (Imagine that — a piece of technology that’s just stupidly fun.)

It was also a year of great loss. It was the passing of Steve Jobs — a man distinguished not just for founding one of the most important American companies but for continuing to change the way we think about and use technology — that drew the world together in collective mourning. But there were a number of other tech greats who left us in 2011, including the man who invented the C programming language, the scientist who coined the term “artificial intelligence,” as well as those who helped build IBM, Fairchild Semiconductor and Sony in the early years.

But this was also the year that we found out that Twitter and Facebook could play a part in real-life revolution — in far-flung places such as Egypt and Tunisia, as well as locales closer to home (hello, 99 percent).

Most of all, this was a year where people suddenly found themselves awash in new ways to communicate, work, play and relax.

A year when it became nearly the norm for the device in your pocket to be the center of your world — for a small sliver of metal, glass and silicon you slip into a bag or jacket to do more than ever before, bring you closer to the rest of the world, and change the way you think about what technology means and what it can do.

And this is just the start. We’re not even at the tip of the iceberg yet. As our networks grow, our devices get faster and smarter, and we will begin to understand the technology better, our lives will be immeasurably and unpredictably changed.

I can’t wait for 2012.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site.

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