Smarter and faster:

Yes, the iPad di­verted at­ten­tion from­rom the Kin­dle in 2010, but Face­book and Twit­ter ruled by com­mand­ing more and more of our time on­line.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - ROB PEGORARO

The year 2010 be­gan with a herd of man­u­fac­tur­ers chas­ing Ama­zon’s Kin­dle. It ends with some of the same com­pa­nies in pur­suit of Ap­ple’s iPad. In be­tween those tablet-com­put­ing crazes, we’ve all been chal­lenged to keep up with the ex­pand­ing uni­verses of so­cial net­work­ing and smart­phones.

Noth­ing il­lus­trates what makes the tech busi­ness both fas­ci­nat­ing and frus­trat­ing as well as the rise of Face­book.

The so­cial-net­work­ing site crossed the 500 mil­lion-user mark and de­buted nu­mer­ous fea­tures, such as an up­graded e-mail ser­vice and op­tions to share your lo­ca­tion with friends and get dis­counts from nearby re­tail­ers.

But it also spent much of the year in­fu­ri­at­ing users with pri­vacy changes that ex­posed more of their data and were con­fus­ing or im­pos­si­ble to undo. The sim­pler pri­vacy in­ter­face it launched in­May should help, but it won’t if this com­pany (on whose board of di­rec­torsWash­ing­ton Post Co. Chair­man Don­ald E. Gra­ham sits) again for­gets that its users don’t all op­er­ate at start-up speeds.

Other so­cial net­works had a smoother road. Twit­ter of­fered its grow­ing user base a more re­li­able ser­vice and a busier but more use­ful in­ter­face, while Foursquare had users check­ing into such far-off lo­ca­tions as the in­ter­na­tional space sta­tion.

You can’t write the story of any of these sites with­out not­ing how smart­phones have al­lowed their users to con­nect from so many places. Ap­ple’s iPhone 4 led that pack in 2010, but Google’s An­droid op­er­at­ing sys­tem im­proved at a faster pace and didn’t re­quire its users to sign up with only one car­rier — even if some of the car­ri­ers sell­ing An­droid phones showed a se­ri­ous lack of taste in their tweaks to Google’s soft­ware.

I prob­a­bly de­voted more col­umn inches to smart­phones than to any other sort of hard­ware, and with good rea­son: This is the most ex­cit­ing, fastest-mov­ing part of the elec­tron­ics in­dus­try.

(Many of my ar­ti­cles and those of oth­ers cov­ered the weird con­tro­versy over the iPhone 4’s re­cep­tion. More should have been de­voted to Ap­ple’s ar­bi­trary and un­ac­count­able con­trol over what goes in the iPhone’s App Store.)

Tablet com­put­ers aren’t far be­hind, though. Ap­ple’s launch of the iPad in Jan­uary re­de­fined this mar­ket in a way that fi­nally made the con­cept rel­e­vant to home users. Com­peti­tors took the hint and have be­gun rolling out de­vices that will never qual­ify as “iPad killers” but do earn the ti­tle of “iPad com­peti­tor.”

The suc­cess of the iPad and other tablets pushed down the price of the Kin­dle and other e-book read­ers. But Ama­zon’s e-reader may need to drop be­low $100 and get a ma­jor screen up­grade to hold its place in the mar­ket.

Both smart­phones and tablets have fur­ther eroded the sig­nif­i­cance of tra­di­tional desk­top and lap­top com­put­ers. Sure, peo­ple still buy the things in mas­sive num­bers. But when you can get so much work and play done on a smart­phone or tablet — or, for that mat­ter, any other de­vice with a browser that can runWeb-based ap­pli­ca­tions like Google Docs — why bother stressing out over your choice of one brand of com­puter?

This trend has hurtMi­crosoft, the com­pany that once ben­e­fited more than any other from the tra­di­tional com­put­ing mar­ket. Its biggest soft­ware ship­ment of the year, its Of­fice 2010 pro­duc­tiv­ity suite for its Win­dows op­er­at­ing sys­tem, was a yawner of a re­lease.

Mean­while, the two most suc­cess­ful de­buts of 2010 for the firm in Red­mond, Wash. — its re­fresh­ingly sim­ple Win­dows Phone 7 smart­phone soft­ware and its Xbox Kinect see­ing-eye videogame in­ter­face — don’t even re­quire you to own a copy of Win­dows or Of­fice.

You’d think that this same shift would have made 2010 an un­mit­i­gated suc­cess for Google. But the firm, based in Moun­tain View, Calif., had a sur­pris­ing se­ries of flops. Its Buzz so­cial-me­dia ser­vice alien­ated users au­to­mat­i­cally en­rolled in it, it gave up on sell­ing its Nexus One An­droid phone di­rectly to con­sumers and its new e-book store didn’t live up to ad­vance hype.

Google’s most painful fail­ure must be its at­tempt to fuseWeb video and sub­scrip­tion pro­gram­ming in its Google TV soft­ware. Un­co­op­er­a­tive net­works promptly sand­bagged it by pre­vent­ing Google TV de­vices like Log­itech’s Re­vue from play­ing shows off their­Web sites.

The tran­si­tion of TV view­ing from ex­pen­sive, in­flex­i­ble pro­gram­ming bun­dles will take longer than Google might hope. But it’s hap­pen­ing — be­tween the rise of such sim­pler de­vices as Ap­ple’s re­launched Ap­ple TV and Roku’s cheap, epony­mousWeb-me­dia re­ceivers, it’s eas­ier than ever to en­joy In­ter­net video on a big screen.

There’s a rea­son, in other words, why “con­nected TV” has far more of a fu­ture than 3-D TV.

Over­all, things look bet­ter for tech users af­ter a year’s worth of change. But two threats could slow or halt much of this progress.

One is the abil­ity of In­ter­net providers, es­pe­cially wire­less car­ri­ers, to block or im­pede ser­vices or ap­pli­ca­tions they don’t like. The govern­ment had a chance to write clear rules about “net­work neu­tral­ity” but, af­ter months of in­de­ci­sion, wound up set­tling on limited, un­cer­tain reg­u­la­tion.

An­other is a patent sys­tem that in­vites abuse by com­pa­nies that, hav­ing won ma­jor pa­tents years be­fore, can then try to win the tort lot­tery by su­ing firms that have brought suc­cess­ful prod­ucts to the mar­ket.

2011 looks promis­ing, es­pe­cially with the prospect of faster “4G” wire­less across more of the coun­try. But if you’re look­ing for ways for things to go wrong, start with those is­sues — then re­mem­ber that, just as in ev­ery other year, the tech busi­ness will con­tinue to serve up its share of buggy 1.0 re­leases.

PAUL SAKUMA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Hand in hand with smart­phones for dom­i­nat­ing this year’s tech scene were tablet com­put­ers, in par­tic­u­lar the iPad, sud­denly be­com­ing use­ful to home users.

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