My first order of business looking back on 2010 is to admit that I was wrong about the iPad.
In January, shortly after Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the device, I wrote that I was "underwhelmed" and argued that the new device was "not a game changer." Boy was I wrong. The iPad has been an incredible success and a major game changer. For the record, once I got my hands on an iPad, my review was quite favorable.
Wherever I go I see people using iPads where they might have otherwise been using a laptop, reading a Kindle or just staring off in space. And it's not an important product just for Apple. It's spawning an entirely new category of computing devices. So far, no one has been able to come up with anything close to an iPad killer, but a few companies -- including Samsung -- are trying. Google is poised to introduce a tablet version of its Android operating system that will attempt to give the iPad the serious competition that Android phones have inflicted on the iPhone.
If the iPad was the big story for 2010, the second biggest was the success of smartphones running Google's Android operating system, which in August overtook iPhone sales for the first time. Of course, whereas the iPhone comes from one handset manufacturer and (so far) one carrier in the United States, Androids are available from all major carriers and several handset manufacturers, including Motorola, which, thanks to the success of its various Android offerings, seems to have come back from the dead.
Google certainly had a good 2010. Not only did the company have excellent earnings, but so did its employees, who each took home a 10 percent pay raise and some hefty bonuses.
Google hasn't yet made any money on its Chrome operating system and it didn't even meet its goal of shipping a commercial version of the OS this year. But it did hand out thousands of test machines that boot directly into the Chrome browser without any other user interface.
Chrome is part of Google's strategy to encourage cloud computing and Web-based apps rather than relying on a traditional computer operating system like Windows and Macintosh. Although Chrome machines are very different from iPads, they both indicate that the era of traditional PCs may be winding down in favor of lighter, thinner and more energy-efficient devices that use the enormous power of the Internet to make up for a bit less horsepower on the device. Don't expect to see the PC disappear any time soon, but as Internet connectivity becomes more ubiquitous, we are starting to see devices that rely more on the power of the Internet, not just for connectivity but for software and computing power as well.
Microsoft didn't make much news this year on the PC front, though it did sell 240 million copies of Windows 7 since it was released in late 2009. The most exciting news from Microsoft was in gaming with the release of the Kinect controller for Xbox. Using motion sensors and both speech and face recognition, Kinect isn't just changing how people play games but also may eventually affect the way we interact with machines.
This was a big year for Facebook, culminating with Time magazine's choice of 26-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as its Person of the Year. Another highlight in 2010 was that Facebook passed the 500 million member mark. But it wasn't all good news for Facebook. Earlier in the year it faced a privacy fiasco after introducing "Instant Personalization," which reignited concerns that the site encourages people to give up too much information.
The negative reaction caught some people at Facebook by surprise and, in an interview in May, Zuckerberg told me that the criticism convinced him that "people want simpler controls over how they share information on Facebook." Facebook rolled out some more controls, but I'd hardly call them simple. We're going to hear a lot more about Facebook privacy concerns in 2011, not just from privacy advocates and consumers but also from lawmakers and regulators.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was a runner-up for Time's most important Person of the Year. Whether he's a hero or a villain is in the eye of the beholder. But by facilitating the unauthorized publication of thousands of secret government documents, WikiLeaks has already had an enormous long-term impact the way the United States and most other governments conduct business going forward.
Ironically, WikiLeaks may be the crowning achievement of the U.S. Defense Department's original goal to create an Internet protected from centralized control. When the precursor to the Internet was created back in the 1960s, it was built as a decentralized network, in part, to keep the Soviets and other powers from being able to disrupt traffic by knocking out a central server.
While it's not clear if the U.S. would have the legal authority to knock WikiLeaks offline, it can't do that because Assange's supporters now have a redundant network of servers around the world to assure that the data remains available, regardless of what authorities try to do.
And that touches on a central theme of 2010. It was a year of disruptive technology.
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