Smartphones were the tech story of 2009

The change to digital TV was a big deal, but not as big as many had expected.
The change to digital TV was a big deal, but not as big as many had expected. (Paul Sakuma/associated Press)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Considering the time and expense involved, the biggest story in technology this year could have been the largely successful transition to digital television that wrapped up in June. But 2009's most significant tech developments took place on much smaller screens.

Smartphones -- will we someday call them simply "phones," just as many people now assume a "phone" means a mobile device? -- led the headlines throughout 2009. They earned that prominence with hardware and software upgrades that advanced their capabilities and gave mobile users fewer reasons to pack a laptop on their next trip.

Apple's iPhone was at the center of this story, but not always for reasons Apple might appreciate. Its new iPhone 3GS brought notable advances from last year's iPhone 3G and helped push the iPhone past Microsoft's aging Windows Mobile in market share, but its capricious oversight of the iPhone's App Store and AT&T Wireless's erratic reliability had some iPhone users and developers seething.

And this year, competitors had some compelling answers to the iPhone. Google's Android software finally broke out of its T-Mobile beachhead with the arrival of Android devices on Sprint and Verizon in the fall; Verizon's Droid was the most impressive Android phone yet, with its brilliant Google Maps navigation program.

Smartphone programmers took note. By the end of the year, some 16,000 programs were available for Android. That's far fewer than the 100,000 programs available for the iPhone, but some of the more creative applications on phones -- for instance, "augmented reality" programs like Layar -- have begun showing up on Android first.

Another iPhone rival emerged in the summer when Palm shipped its Pre smartphone, a sleek, Web-savvy creation that owed nothing to its obsolete Treo and Centro devices and the even older software on them. If Palm can attract more developers to the Pre's webOS operating system -- a non-trivial "if" -- smartphone users should have an excellent choice of phones in 2010.

The market for full-fledged, "real" computers was less interesting in 2009. Desktop machines continued to lose market share to laptops, although those portable machines didn't bring any noteworthy innovations of their own in hardware design.

Microsoft may have finally made its penance for Windows Vista by shipping the much-improved Windows 7-- but the user-hostile process involved in upgrading from Windows XP to 7, combined with PC manufacturers' continued brain-dead taste in bundled software, will hold back 7 a bit.

For PC users not looking to buy a new computer, Microsoft's most-welcome release of the year was not 7 but its free, nag-free Microsoft Security Essentials anti-virus program, an overdue challenge to the intrusive, irritating products of incumbent security-software vendors.

Apple's new Mac OS X Snow Leopard didn't offer as many concrete benefits as Windows 7, but the Mac market only kept growing in 2009, hitting 12 percent of the consumer market in one study.

You can't just credit Apple for that shift. The accelerating movement of consumer software from traditional, disk-based programs to Web-hosted options, most free, steadily eroded the "but I can't run my old programs on a Mac" objection. Even Microsoft announced that the next release of its Office productivity software would include a free, ad-supported Web version.

In the realm of gadgets, this could have been the year of the electronic book. But while Amazon's Kindle 2 and Kindle DX seem to be selling well (Amazon won't release specific numbers), forecasts of a boom in sales this holiday season will probably go unfulfilled after Sony and Barnes and Noble couldn't ship their own wireless e-book readers as scheduled.

Publishers' continued insistence on repeating the recording industry's failed, now-abandoned practice of locking up purchased downloads with "digital rights management" restrictions can't have helped things either.

So what about that digital-TV transition? It was not the disaster some had feared, but it did not go as well as others, myself included, had expected. Some TV stations switched their broadcasts to frequencies that covered fewer viewers than predicted, and there's still a puzzling lack of simple, cheap ways to record over-the-air broadcasts.

But DTV does work well enough to allow some viewers to stop paying for cable or satellite TV, supplemented by Web-delivered shows.

What's on deck for 2010? Expect to see many old and new tech-policy topics, such as net-neutrality regulations, Comcast's proposed acquisition of NBC Universal, and Google's ever-increasing reach to take as much space in the headlines (and on Twitter) as the digital-TV switch once did. As well they should; these are important issues, and we'll be dealing with the consequences of them for a lot longer than the lifespan of a new smartphone.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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