2011 in Review: Top 10 mobile stories of the year

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The last 12 months have been a wild ride, as we started the year with many of us wondering how the Xoom and PlayBook could compete against the iPad, how would HP use webOS, what the iPhone 5 would look like and if 4G LTE would really come to America in a big way. There have been a lot of pleasant and not-so-pleasant surprises in 2011 but some clear takeaways are that the smartphone revolution is in full swing, tablets are here to stay and 4G can be real.

So, in no particular order, let’s take a look at some of the top mobile stories of 2011.

[Main image via Shutterfly, Jaros]

Google buys Motorola

At the beginning of 2011, Motorola seemed like it was in a good position: the newly independent mobile company had a fantastic CES showing with the Bionic and Xoom and the future looked bright. After the Droid Bionic faced seemingly endless delays and the Xoom was a flop, the company’s outlook wasn’t quite as rosy in August but then Google swooped in with a $12.5 billion bid. While this deal has yet to be finalized, it could be major shakeup for Google, Android and the mobile patent world.

Before the Motorola deal, Android was being attacked in lawsuits from nearly every direction. Only Oracle was going after Google directly for Android patent infringements but lawsuits against Android device makers around the world were eating up valuable resources and potentially putting some doubt in OEMs’ minds. Buying Motorola will potentially give Google the patents it needs to vigorously defend Android in courts and it said as much at the time of the acquisition.

But Google’s Eric Schmidt said it didn’t just buy Motorola for the patents and even though Google plans to operate it as an independent subsidiary, a Google-owned Motorola could be a powerful force in creating Android hardware. Like Apple, Google would be able to control the hardware and software on some Android devices at scale. While some of the IntoMobile team think Motorola’s design is getting stale, the insanely thin Droid Razr shows that it still has some tricks up its sleeves.

Google moving into the hardware business has far-reaching consequences. Android handset makers like Samsung, HTC and Sony Ericsson parroted Google’s line about the move being good for Android overall because it will give it more legal protection but Google is now competing directly with these companies for new smartphone purchases. Google insists that Motorola won’t get any special treatment but simple business logic suggests that Google should use its synergies to ensure that future “Googorola” devices have the latest software and are designed with input from people like Andy Rubin.

We expect this deal to close in early 2012 but the real impact won’t be felt for years to come.

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Apple releases iPad 2, iPhone 4S

Read 2011 in Review: iOS

Apple was at the top of its game again in 2011 and its flagship mobile products led the way, even if there was more speculation and rumors surrounding them.

The first iPad was released in 2010 and it was quite a big hit but this was supposed to be the year where the competition struck back: The Motorola Xoom had a splashy Super Bowl ad and was the first device with Android Honeycomb, the BlackBerry PlayBook was on the horizon, webOS was going to land in a tablet with the TouchPad and nearly every major manufacturer was going to try and put its best foot forward in the tablet game. None of that really mattered.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad 2 in March, he said it would be the “year of the iPad 2″ and the tablet did dominate. With boosted internals, a much lighter and thinner rame and multiple cameras, the iPad 2 wasn’t head and shoulders ahead of the competition in terms of specs but its design and app ecosystem kept it far ahead of the pack.

Apple has already sold more than 20 million iPad units this year and that’s not even counting the holiday quarter. Apple sells more iPads in a quarter than most of the competition sells in a year and that’s if they’re lucky. While the Galaxy Tab 10.1 provided a legitimate competitor and the Kindle Fire could siphon off some tablet seekers on a budget, Apple is clearly in the pole position in the tablet market and all eyes are on the iPad 3 in 2012.

The rumor mill about the 2011 iPhone were insane this year, as Apple didn’t introduce the next iPhone in the summer like it has the previous four years. Apple didn’t specify why there was a delay in introduction but Apple wound up selling more iPhone 4 units in the last year than any other iPhone, so it appears like this will be the new release cycle. Additionally, the iPhone 4 coming to Verizon in January could have played a role.

When the iPhone 4S was finally introduced in October, some users expressed disappointment but the interest was off the charts. The iPhone 4S launched and sold 4 million units in just three days and we felt like it was a great device in our review, even if it has essentially the exact same design as the previous model.

The iPhone 4S came with two major features to draw in users: Siri and iOS 5. Apple used the voice-recognition technology it acquired in the Siri purchase to create this personal assistant and it debuted with some mixed results. I found that Siri on the iPhone 4S was great for what it did and was really innovative but it’s definitely still a beta product and no one expects a beta product from Apple. Still, it’s only going to get better with time and you already see competitors scrambling to have their own alternatives on competing platforms.

The real star of the show with the iPhone 4S is the iOS 5 software, which delivers a ton of new features and potentially changes how you interact with your device. It’s still the same iOS experience you’re used to but the inclusion of an Android-style notification bar, integrated Twitter, improved camera and iCloud are all major improvements.

You could easily argue that the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S aren’t even the top of the market when it comes to specs but these products are still the barometer for the industry but the gap is increasingly becoming smaller. Can Apple repeat its magic in 2012?

The signs are pointing to “yes,” as the next iPad and iPhone have probably been in production for at least a year and the rumor mill continues to say that a true Apple TV will land in 2012. With Steve Jobs gone, some are predicting a slight dip moving forward but I think that discounts the abilities of Tim Cook. We’re not sure if Cook can be the type of innovative leader that Jobs was but that impact likely won’t be felt for years down the road.

Nokia, Microsoft team up for Windows Phone

Read 2011 in Review: Windows Phone

Microsoft and Nokia became perfect partners in 2011 because each needed the other desperately. Microsoft had a beautiful operating system with Windows Phone but it wasn’t gaining traction with consumers while Nokia still had its global brand and scale but its Symbian and MeeGo platforms were just not good enough to compete against iOS and Android. Will this lead to a game-changing partnership or is this two turkeys trying to be an eagle?

We’re just starting to see the fruits of this partnership, as the Lumia 700 and Lumia 800 have hit the market to mostly-positive reviews. We really liked the look and feel of the Lumia 800 but it’s clear that Nokia hasn’t had a chance to really dig into the software as much as it would want to. Additionally, this first round of Nokia Windows Phones won’t be landing in the United States until the beginning of 2012, so it’s too soon to tell how successful this partnership will be.

We get the feeling that 2012 will be an important year for Nokia, as we know there’s a Lumia 900 in the works and this could be one of the best devices of the year. Rumors say this handset will land on AT&T in early 2012 with 4G LTE support and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this unveiled at Microsoft’s CES keynote.

In the end, a single device isn’t going to save Nokia or Microsoft, as the ultimate goal of this partnership is to build a compelling ecosystem that is as good or better than iOS or Android. Next year, we’ll see if the picture starts coming together or if Nokia and Microsoft will continue to fade.

AT&T tries and fails to buy T-Mobile

We were all a bit blindsided when AT&T announced it wanted to buy T-Mobile for more than $36 billion – in fact, I was getting on a plane to Orlando for the CTIA conference where the CEOs of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon were prepared to share a stage during the keynote. T-Mobile dropped out of that keynote but the fireworks remained and it still represented a major shakeup in the wireless industry.

The move would have made AT&T the nation’s largest carrier but the company had another goal in mind: nabbing spectrum. As more and more people use more and more mobile data, there is legitimately a looming “spectrum crisis” and while the government is moving to make more spectrum available, buying T-Mobile would be a much quicker solution. AT&T wanted to use this spectrum and the existing infrastructure in place to expand its 4G LTE plans, as well as bring mobile broadband to the widest footprint possible. AT&T also said that the acquisition would improve service in many major metropolitans and it would have increased jobs and productivity.

Of course, many were concerned that losing one of the four major wireless carriers would have a negative impact on consumers and it would essentially give the AT&T, T-Mobile entity a monopoly on GSM handsets in the United States. Many speculated that the deal would have a tough time passing through regulators and that appears those skeptics were right on the money, as the Department of Justice sued to block the deal and the Federal Communications Commission released a damning report which said the deal would hurt consumers.

The governmental hurdles proved to be too much, as AT&T officially pulled out of the deal, costing it nearly $4 billion in a breakup fee. Verizon played it cool the whole time, instantly saying it would not oppose the deal then laying out one-tenth of the T-Mobile buy price to acquire valuable spectrum to augment its already good 4G LTE network.

T-Mobile is now put in an awkward situation, as it spent the better part of 2011 trying to convince regulators that it should be bought and the business opportunities it lost during that time can never be regained. It’s also way behind in subscriber count and has limited options with its spectrum moving forward. On the bright side, T-Mobile will receive about $4 billion worth of assets and money and Dish Network recently said it would consider partnering with T-Mobile on wireless services.

There were earlier rumblings that AT&T may team up with Deutsche Telekom to do a joint venture with T-Mobile’s assets but it definitely needs to get more spectrum somehow. While it may have a little egg on its face for miscalculating this deal, companies like AT&T don’t grow to its size without having a backup plan and it may need to pull that out in 2012.

4G LTE gets real

Top 10 mobile stories of the year

While the term “4G” has essentially turned into a marketing gimmick for the carriers, 2011 was the year that 4G actually got real. Led mainly by Verizon, we now have multiple carriers deploying or planning to deploy 4G LTE across the country in a relatively short amount of time. With speeds of up to 20 Mbps down, 4G LTE legitimately changes the way you work and play.

Verizon kicked off the year with a bang by having aggressive 4G LTE rollout plans and actually following through on it. Over 175 cities have 4G LTE coverage and Verizon’s next generation network covers 186 million people with more coverage on the way. It’s actually pretty stellar too, as 4G LTE routinely tops nationwide speed tests and my personal experiences with it have been nothing but great. While the 4G LTE phones on Verizon generally have poor battery life, that’s to be expected with first-generation technology and we should get more power-efficient devices in 2012 that still have the blazing speeds.

AT&T appears to be taking a more cautious approach to its 4G LTE rollout, as the service is super-duper fast in the few markets that it’s in. Even though AT&T has cool 4G LTE phones like the Skyrocket, Vivid and Nitro HD, the network isn’t even in many major cities like New York or San Francisco. AT&T is also calling its HSPA+ network “4G,” so even if you’re not in an LTE market, your phone will likely have a nice, little “4G” icon.

Look for AT&T to be more aggressive with its deployment in 2012 and it will say that its LTE is better than Verizon’s because of the technology used and the worldwide standard bands it employs. Verizon will likely still have a footprint advantage by then and it just armed itself with more spectrum to ensure that it doesn’t face the dreaded spectrum crunch.

After years of using WiMax as its 4G solution, Sprint finally said it would be switching to LTE in 2012. This doesn’t mean that WiMax is dead completely, as it will still run the WiMax network until 2015 and Sprint will also sell WiMax handsets until the end of 2012. That transition may be rough though, as I doubt we’ll see many phones with a dual-mode WiMax and 4G LTE technology. As painful as it may be in the short term, the move should help Sprint better position itself moving forward, as it will be able to deliver a network that’s as fast or faster than the competition and LTE is quickly becoming a global standard, so it may be easier to get high-profile handsets.

As for T-Mobile, the fourth-largest carrier’s 4G situation may be up in the air. The proposed acquisition from AT&T fell through, so T-Mobile will find itself with $4 billion worth of assets but not a whole lot of spectrum to roll out 4G LTE. The company is currently pushing its HSPA+42 network as 4G and even though this can theoretically get up to 42 Mbps down, it still doesn’t have some of the other benefits of LTE like a lower latency.

T-Mobile has been in an awkward position for the last six months or so, as it’s pretty much in a holding pattern until the AT&T deal is finally approved or blocked. There are still rumors that AT&T and Deutsche Telekom could use T-Mobile’s assets for a joint venture but its 4G fate is still up in the air.

The next twelve months should be a great time for new smartphones and tablets because as the 4G LTE technologies become more mature, it can provide a more power-efficient experience with lightning-fast speeds. While looming data caps may rain on the 4G LTE parade, I believe we’ll see a lot of innovative hardware and software which can fully take advantage of these data networks.

[Photo via Shutterstock orangeornate]

HP kills webOS … for the most part

If things had played out differently with Mark Hurd, 2011 could have been the year that HP began its ascent in the smartphone space and where webOS became a credible alternative to iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Instead, HP is facing a leadership deficit and webOS will likely be remembered as a platform that was more promise than product.

HP purchased Palm last year for more than $1 billion and this seemed like a match made in heaven. With HP’s backing, webOS finally had the deep pockets it needed to really compete against Apple, Microsoft and Google. The first HP products with webOS weren’t amazing but it was the start of something. The Veer and HP TouchPad weren’t critically acclaimed but these seemed like devices that were on Palm’s roadmap beforehand and now that these were out, HP could focus on the next generation of webOS devices.

That didn’t happen. HP’s CEO Leo Apotheker decided to kill webOS as he transitioned the company away from the personal computing space and more toward the higher-margin enterprise services business. The axing of webOS products was part of his decision to sell off the personal computing group but after some colossal corporate bumbling, Apotheker was sent packing after less than a year at the top of HP and Meg Whitman was brought in to decide what would be the fate of webOS.

HP decided to open source webOS and it said that it will consider making tablets again in 2013 with whatever comes from this move. It was probably the smartest move HP could make, as the open-source community could take the excellent foundation of webOS and really bring it up to par with the competition. I’m still not convinced this move will pay off though, as it really reminds me of the move to open-source Symbian and we all know how that ended. HP didn’t really have any other choice, as it was already $3 billion in the hole from webOS and you may as well take a gamble.

While we may see more tablets and phones with webOS, 2011 could be the year that we saw the last major products with this platform. It’s a long shot but there’s also the possibility that 2011 will be the year where webOS begins its long slog towards greatness.

Android becomes dominant

Read 2011 in Review: Android

In three short years, Google’s mobile operating system has gone from an interesting experiment to the dominant smartphone platform on the planet. The latest Comscore numbers said more than 44 percent of U.S. smartphones were running Android and Gartner said 52.5 percent of smartphones sold at the end of the third quarter globally were powered by the little, green robot. That’s more than half of the new smartphones in the world using a platform that didn’t really exist three and a half years ago. Throw on the 700,000 Android handset activations per day and it’s clear that the platform is a success.

This near-ubiquity was all part of Google’s vision from the beginning and that’s why it made the iOS competitor free from the outset. This year also saw two major versions of Android: Honeycomb for tablets and then Ice Cream Sandwich to unify tablets and phones as well as push the platform forward. While the majority of Android users are still on Gingerbread, ICS in particular shows how much the platform has grown and become its own thing. The Galaxy Nexus was this year’s annual flagship Google handset and it is quite a nice smartphone.

While Android is winning in terms of market share, it’s clear that there are winners and losers within the ecosystem. Samsung is probably the biggest winner with its massively-successful Galaxy S lineup and Motorola bet its future on Android and will likely end up being a part of the company that created Android, so I guess that’s a victory.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have companies like LG and Sony Ericsson, which haven’t been able to gain as much traction as they would like during this booming time for smartphones. Instinctively, I would have classified HTC in the “winner” category but it has also been hit with sluggish sales lately. Additionally, while Android may be winning in terms of market share, Apple still makes the most profits off its iOS devices by far.

It hasn’t all been pretty for Android in 2011, as the tablet version essentially flopped and it continues to be under assault for patents – Google made the case that the Motorola purchase was done primarily for patent protections. Android manufacturers like Samsung and HTC have faced some high-profile legal setbacks this year and even Google is feeling more heat. It will be interesting to see what impact the Motorola deal will have on these lawsuits in 2012.

While patents will still be an issue in 2012, it doesn’t look like Android will lose momentum over the next 12 months. More and more people are purchasing smartphones, high-volume producers like Huawei and ZTE will be making a larger push with Android and it’s still pretty much the best option for many manufacturers to compete against the iPhone. While I really, really like Windows Phone, I believe the special partnership between Nokia and Microsoft may make other handset makers nervous and there’s no way the open-source webOS will be ready for mass production in 2012 and that’s assuming a company would even want to use it.

The Android army marches on and the real question I have is what will the version after Jellybean be called? Kumkwat? Key lime pie?

RIM sinks, looks for BBX BB10 for salvation

Read 2011 in Review: RIM and BlackBerry

It was not the greatest year for Research In Motion, as the BlackBerry maker introduced its first tablet to a muted response, introduced BlackBerry 7 devices which failed to keep up with the competition and saw investor confidence sink.

The year started off with some hope for RIM, as the PlayBook was still creating some buzz but fans were growing tired of waiting. Remember, it took RIM nearly six full months to finally release it and in that time, Apple introduced a little thing called the iPad 2. In our official review of the PlayBook, we were intrigued by the form factor and new QNX software but the lack of native e-mail, BBM and calendar was inexcusable. RIM spun that as a security feature but the truth is that it rushed the PlayBook to the market before it could really make it the product it needed to be to succeed. Think about how crazy it still is that a BlackBerry device isn’t a good messaging machine.

The new crop of BlackBerry 7 smartphones were great messaging devices as you’d expect but no matter how beautifully designed devices like the Bold 9900 were, you just couldn’t get beyond the feeling that the software wasn’t up to snuff with iOS, Android and Windows Phone. While BlackBerry 7 is better and prettier than previous versions, it still wasn’t built with apps in mind and really does feel like lipstick on a pig.

RIM tried to fix this by announcing its next-generation platform, BBX, which would combine the best elements of QNX with what BlackBerry is known for, as well as make the operating system open to multiple app developer languages. The BBX name was quickly changed to BlackBerry 10 when RIM lost an embarrassing trademark battle but leaked devices gave us some hope that it could start to turn around the ship early next year.

Then, RIM’s co-CEOs said they’re slashing their salaries to $1 a year and, more importantly, that the first BlackBerry 10 smartphones aren’t scheduled to land until late 2012. RIM said it wanted to wait for dual-core and LTE parts to become tenable and you definitely don’t want it to rush another product out but it’s tough to not think that it will be late to the party again.

By late 2012, consumers will likely be able to pick up the next-generation iPhone (probably with LTE), quad-core Android handsets running Jellybean and multiple Nokia Windows Phones running the Tango or Apollo software. It’s tough to imagine a new BlackBerry topping those with your average consumer but luckily, RIM’s enterprise base is still strong, even if Apple and Android are slowly chipping away.

There are still some silver linings in 2011 for RIM, as there are now more BlackBerry users out there than ever and it has a huge presence in some markets outside of the United States. There were reports that a BlackBerry outage led to fewer traffic accidents in Dubai and while it’s not good to see RIM with outages, it does show how entrenched it is in some markets.

The next 12 months aren’t going to be easy for RIM but it may be too soon to start writing its eulogy. The next year could be make or break for the BlackBerry maker, so let’s see what it can do.

Samsung has the wind at its back

This was a banner year for Samsung, as the company sold more than 300 million phones in the year, firmly planted itself as probably the best Android handset maker with the Galaxy S II lineup and it put out tablets which were probably the best competition for the iPad when it comes to design and experience. While there are potential hurdles ahead, Samsung is poised to make an even bigger splash in 2012.

Samsung made the great move of creating its own brand around the Galaxy lineup and this includes a series of funny ads directly going after Apple and the iPhone. It’s not just marketing though, as the Samsung Galaxy S II was the best Android phone of 2011 and it was arguably the best phone in general for a period. It took a long, long time to come to the United States but it had already sold tens of millions of units overseas and will likely get a nice boost after appearing on AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Samsung was also chosen for the second year in a row to be the maker of the Nexus device and it still managed to shoehorn its branding into it with the Galaxy Nexus. The world’s first Ice Cream Sandwich phone is a brilliant device even if we’ve seen a few issues with getting signals on Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

While Samsung wasn’t the first company to push out an Android Honeycomb tablet, the Galaxy Tab lineup is arguably the best alternative to the iPad if you take price out of the equation. We absolutely loved the 10.1 and the company pushed out multiple versions with different screen sizes. While the Kindle Fire may wind up selling more due to its super-low price, the Galaxy Tab provides a better tablet experience, in my opinion.

Next year, we’re looking forward to the Galaxy S III and its crazy specs and the next generation of its tablets. It also signed a major patent licensing agreement with Microsoft and it may even make a stronger push with Windows Phone.

Samsung has a quality lineup of products with improved sequels on the way, it owns its own manufacturing facilities and its marketing team is firing on all cylinders, so what could go wrong? I think that lawsuits from the likes of Apple could have a serious impact on Samsung in 2012, particularly if it scores more victories in court. In most normal patent infringement cases, the lawsuit is just another way to get a company to sign a licensing agreement but there are signs that Apple is out for blood and could put a hurt to Samsung’s bottom line.

Still, Samsung’s 2012 outlook is quite rosy.

Steve Jobs dies

Former Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs died on Oct. 6 at the age of 56 after years of battling cancer. No matter what you thought about Apple’s products and his management style, you cannot discount the impact he and Apple have had on personal computing and the mobile space.

With a new autobiography and millions of posts and personal anecdotes across the web, I’m not sure there’s much more to add to this one. Without Jobs, this site probably wouldn’t exist in its current form and the face of personal computing and mobile technology would be vastly different.

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