There's no doubt about it -- 2011 was a huge year for technology. The months were filled with stories about technology influencing everything from how we interact online to world-changing political shifts. There were so many important events that we couldn't limit ourselves to just 10.
If you look back at 2011, you'll see some interesting narratives unfold throughout the year. There are stories about the concept of privacy versus communication. Other stories lay out the debate between protecting intellectual property and promoting freedom and innovation. And there's no shortage of tales involving corporate shenanigans and games of executive musical chairs as we saw several high-ranking technology bigwigs get the boot from various companies.
Our first story will make any fan of post-apocalypse stories scream in glee while they scramble for all the oil, food and water they can grab. It's all about the rise of artificial intelligence. Just make sure you form any responses to the story in the form of a question.
What is Robot Superiority, Alex?
The mad geniuses over at IBM enjoy a challenge. In the past, they've taken on tasks such as spelling out IBM with individual atoms or building a computer capable of defeating a grandmaster chess champion. But in 2011, they really surprised us when they introduced Watson on national television. The supercomputer competed on the game show "Jeopardy!"
Named after a father and son duo who both led IBM in the past, Watson was the product of a project that lasted several years. The goal was to create a computer that could answer questions posed in natural language. Most computers can only respond to specific instructions -- venture outside those parameters and the computer will be stumped. That's not the case with Watson.
Watson relied on 90 IBM servers with a total of 2,880 processing cores to analyze clues and come up with possible responses. The computer could weigh potential answers, judging them against each other in order to come up with the most likely candidate. The computer faced two former "Jeopardy!" champions and won.
While Watson was successful, and it seems that computers have beaten us at yet another game, we find it comforting that it required so much computational horsepower for Watson to put up a fight against mere mortals. And we can still beat it at Twister!
Neutrinos Break Our Brains
Under a mountain in Italy, a few scientists discovered something troubling. They had received a special delivery of subatomic particles called neutrinos from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The neutrinos didn't come via the post -- CERN projected a beam of neutrinos at the Gran Sasso facility where the scientists waited patiently for their arrival. They knew the wait wouldn't be long -- it would only take 2.4 milliseconds.
Except the neutrino guests of honor got to the party early. According to the scientists, the particles arrived 60 billionths of a second earlier than they were supposed to. They also claimed a margin of error of 10 billionths of a second. This would suggest that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light, something a certain Mr. Einstein would take exception to.
The scientists invited others to repeat their own experiment to see if perhaps there were some other explanation for the phenomenon. Good science requires experiments to be replicable and reliable -- it's completely possible that an error was the real culprit and that neutrinos weren't being naughty little speed demons. We're still searching for answers -- could neutrinos move faster than the speed of light? Could this mean that we can send information into the past? Does this violate the laws of cause and effect? Or is there some variable somewhere that we simply haven't noticed yet? We have top scientists all over the world looking into it. So far, one experiment has been able to confirm the results, though more testing is needed [source: Brown].
Take 50 Tablets and Call Me in the Morning
It took more than a decade for people to accept the way the device looks and works, but now it looks like the tablet is the new must-have gadget. In 2011, we saw tablets debut on -- and disappear from -- store shelves. Some were big hits, while others are still searching for an audience.
Apple's iPad 2 set the bar. The tablet was a big success on launch day, giving Apple fans plenty to talk about for months. Motorola introduced the Xoom tablet, the first to run Android Honeycomb, Google's operating system for tablets. RIM's BlackBerry Playbook gave enterprise users something to think about. And both Amazon and Barnes & Noble introduced new tablet devices to the electronic reader market.
One of the most popular tablets in 2011 was a device that was abandoned: HP's TouchPad. In August 2011, the company announced it was discontinuing the webOS tablet and that it would also halt developing the operating system itself. The next week, HP began to sell the remaining TouchPads in stock for $99. There was a sudden rush on tablets -- the low price point was enough to entice people, even though there was no support for the device. Since then, HP has reconsidered the fate of webOS and has committed to moving it to the open-source community.
Operating Systems Debut
We saw several new operating systems for the first time in 2011. Some were for fully fledged computers. Others were meant for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. And not all of them were available on the market by the end of the year.
On the computer side of the market, we saw Apple's Mac OS X Lion hit virtual shelves. Apple made the decision to sell its new OS through the Mac App Store as a digital download. Some incompatibility issues with older software kept some users from adopting the new OS for a few months.
Microsoft unveiled a developer build of the next version of Windows, which the company called Windows 8. The OS sported a new user interface (UI) called Metro that resembled what you would find on a mobile device. The company revealed that Windows 8 will be optimized for touch-screen interfaces, though you can still navigate it using the traditional keyboard and mouse combination.
Linux fans got to play with two new builds of Ubuntu over 2011. The first was called Natty Narwhal and the second was Oneiric Ocelot. And Google devotees finally got their hands on the Google Chrome OS, an operating system that offloads most applications to the cloud.
Mobile operating systems that debuted in 2011 included Apple's iOS 5, an early look at Android Ice Cream and the Playbook's OS developed by QNX. Paired with HP's announcement that webOS will move to the open-source community, this news means that there's more competition than ever before in the operating system market.
The Future of Gaming
It's been a few years since we've seen a new console system from the big three players: Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. At the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo, Nintendo launched the first volley in the next generation of the console warfare by announcing the Wii U. Sporting a new controller with its own embedded touch screen, the company hopes to get a jump on its competitors.
Rumors about the next systems from Microsoft and Sony were circulating by the end of 2011. One rumor suggests that the next Microsoft console will have Kinect-like features built into the system itself. One rumor goes even further and suggests the new Xbox will be able to detect your mood or read your lips using its cameras. Similar rumors suggest that Sony's next system will also have some sort of motion-control interface incorporated into the design.
On the handheld front, Nintendo launched the Nintendo 3DS, a gaming system with a glasses-free 3D screen. Sales at launch failed to meet the company's expectations, and Nintendo reduced the sales price of the system. By the end of 2011, sales had picked up and the 3DS was a success.
Another big story in gaming was about how smartphones and social networks were dominating in the casual games market. Based on the rumors and developments in 2011, we can assume the future of gaming will be in 3-D, it will be on your phone and you'll have to jump up and down to get anything done.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Holiday shoppers made 2011 a big year -- Cyber Monday holiday sales broke all previous records with $1.25 billion in sales in the United States [source: comScore]. But that's just chump change compared to some of the year's biggest spenders.
Microsoft purchased the peer-to-peer communications service Skype for around $8.5 billion in May of 2011. Fans of Skype praise the service for its features, including video calls and VoIP transactions. Some feared that Microsoft might alter Skype. Others predicted that Skype would become a fundamental feature of Microsoft's Xbox Live service.
In a move that surprised several tech journalists, Google announced plans to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Theories about why Google would buy a handset manufacturer ranged from access to patents to creating a new testing procedure for future builds of the Android operating system. But the plan met with resistance -- European Union regulators worry that such a merger could hurt competition among Android handset manufacturers.
One proposed merger that dominated 2011 headlines was AT&T's intent on purchasing T-Mobile USA for around $39 billion. The two companies rank second and fourth among the largest cell-phone service providers in the United States. People who opposed the merger claimed that the new company would stifle innovation and become a monopoly for GSM handsets in the United States.
AT&T withdrew its merger proposal from the Federal Communications Commission in late 2011. The FCC released a report on the proposed merger, which caused AT&T executives to protest. The report criticized the merger plan. This was bad news for AT&T, which had withdrawn the proposal in order to concentrate on a lawsuit leveled by the U.S. Department of Justice against the proposed plan. Before the end of the year, AT&T decided to call off the merger, a tough decision due to the terms of the deal -- the company owed T-Mobile USA about $4 billion in the event the acquisition failed.
Based on the way the tech blogosphere reacted, you'd think "patent" was a curse word. That's because some companies wield patents the way countries can wield the threat of nuclear annihilation. Several companies have patent libraries that provide leverage against competitors. If a competitor releases a product that infringes -- or seems to infringe -- upon a patent the company holds, then it's off to court!
There are even companies that are just in the business of holding patents. These companies can license patents to organizations, people or other companies. Or the company might choose to go after other entities in court. The strategy is simple -- threaten to level a lawsuit, and then wait for the settlement money to roll in. The less charitable among us refer to such companies as patent trolls.
Not all patent litigation ends with huge sums of money exchanging hands. Sometimes, two companies will agree to cross-license various patents, as Samsung and Microsoft did in September 2011 [source: Crook]. This way, everyone can keep doing business without fear of having the corporate pants sued off of them.
Taking it Public
While economic uncertainty was a big item in the news in 2011, a few companies took the plunge and switched from being private organizations to publicly traded companies. These transitions aren't always smooth, and even the excitement over a successful initial public offering (IPO) can fizzle out in a matter of weeks.
Perhaps no company better shows what a roller coaster the stock market can be than LinkedIn. The social network for professionals and job seekers held its IPO in May 2011. The initial stock price was $45 per share. By the end of the first day of trading, that price had jumped up 171 percent. At its highest point that day, the stocks sold at $122.70 before settling down to $94.25. The stocks lost some ground over the following months -- on Dec. 1, 2011, the stock price was $64.90 when the market opened [source: Google finance].
On Nov. 3, 2011, Groupon held its IPO. The service partners with stores and other services to offer regionalized discounts. On November 3, some 35 million shares of Groupon went for $20 a pop, raising a total of around $700 million. But the fast launch had a few hiccups along the way -- market volatility saw the price of stocks rocket up before plummeting back down to near the IPO price.
Two more companies that held IPOs in 2011 were Pandora, the Internet radio service, and Zynga, a company best known for games incorporated in social networks like Facebook and Google Plus. One company that didn't hold an IPO was Facebook itself, though rumors as of the time of this writing suggest it may not be far behind.
HP Confuses Us
One company that had a baffling 2011 was Hewlett-Packard. In 2010, HP acquired Palm, a company known for producing personal digital assistants and smartphones. Palm had developed a mobile operating system called webOS, but the new platform struggled to find an audience in the market. When HP swooped in for the rescue, it seemed as if webOS would live on in tablets, if not smartphones.
Then in May 2011, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that HP CEO Leo Apotheker planned to package webOS with every PC the company would ship in 2012. Users would be able to boot into either the Windows operating system or webOS. Presumably, this would give developers an incentive to create innovative applications for the webOS platform. After all, with a potential user base as large as the largest computer manufacturer in the world could provide, developers might have more reasons to write software for the platform.
By the time August rolled around, we had another story. In a press release, HP revealed the company would discontinue operations involving webOS for smartphones and tablets. The press release also said that the company was considering spinning off its PC division into a separate company. Suddenly, it looked like HP was getting out of the consumer electronics business, and webOS was destined to fade away. The crazy fire sale of HP TouchPads -- tablets running webOS -- soon followed.
In September, the board of directors for HP fired Leo Apotheker and hired Meg Whitman, former head of eBay. One month later, HP announced that it wasn't really spinning off its PC business after all. And before the fever dream could come to an end, another announcement from HP in December surprised us: HP will hand webOS over to the open-source community. The company would also continue to develop and support the operating system. Whew!
Netflix Confuses Us More
One company that gave HP a run for the money in 2011's confusion department was Netflix. The company was doing well for the first half of 2011 -- the stock price climbed up to $305 on June 13 at its highest point [source: Google finance]. It seemed like Netflix was everywhere, including computers, tablets, phones, video game consoles and set-top boxes. What could possibly go wrong?
We found out in September. That's when Netflix announced changes to its price plans. Before September, customers in the United States could subscribe to a combined DVD and Internet-streaming plan for $9.99 per month. The company decided to split Internet-streaming and DVD plans into two categories. Combining them would now cost customers $15.98 per month. That's a 62.5-percent price hike. To say that Netflix customers protested the change would be putting it lightly.
The response was so vocal that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings published an official apology on the Netflix blog. But then he went on to create a new controversy by announcing that the company would spin off its DVD service as its own organization. The Internet-streaming division would still be called Netflix. The new company's name would be known as Qwikster. Customers would have to manage two different accounts with two different companies if they wanted to have both DVD and Internet-streaming service.
The negative response to the new announcement prompted Netflix to reverse course and say that nothing would change -- apart from the earlier price hikes. Shareholders may have felt a little dismay as the stock price fell down below $100. By Dec. 1, 2011, the price was at $64.42 per share when the market opened. Rumors popped up that Netflix might look to sell to a larger company -- candidates included Verizon, Google and Microsoft, among others.
Changes in Management - Yahoo, HP, Google, Apple
Leo Apotheker's departure from HP wasn't the only big story involving tech companies and upper management. One story that brought along with it some controversy was Yahoo's board of directors firing Carol Bartz from the position of CEO. Bartz, who has a reputation for being outspoken, sent out a blunt e-mail to Yahoo's employees explaining that she had been fired over the phone. Yahoo didn't have a replacement lined up for Bartz -- as of December 2011, the company hadn't found a permanent replacement.
Over at Google, the transition of power was a little less dramatic. Former CEO Eric Schmidt stepped down as the head of the company and handed the reins over to Google co-founder Larry Page. Page went on to eliminate many Google projects, believing them to be distractions or subpar products [source: CNET].
Out of all the companies that experienced shifts in upper management, no tech company got as much publicity as Apple. In January, Steve Jobs announced he would go on a medical leave of absence from his role as CEO at Apple, though he was still heavily involved in Apple's business. In August, Steve Jobs announced his resignation from the company as CEO and recommended Apple COO Tim Cook as a replacement. Reporters, industry analysts, Apple employees and fans of the company all began to question what the fate of Apple would be without its co-founder.
Apple had a mixed year in 2011. Jobs's resignation raised questions about whether or not the company could maintain its leadership role in the mobile market. But the company has seen enormous growth due to some shrewd business moves and compelling products.
One big change for Apple in the United States was the announcement that the iPhone would become available on Verizon Wireless's network. Previously, only AT&T carried the iPhone in the United States. Out of the four major cell phone carriers in the United States, Verizon has the most customers -- AT&T is in second place. Suddenly, Apple had access to millions of new customers.
By the end of 2011, the iPhone would also come to Sprint's network, leaving T-Mobile USA as the only major network in the United States without an iPhone. Apple also launched the iPhone 4S. The new iPhone sports the same basic exterior design as its predecessor but includes more features, including a virtual assistant called Siri that uses voice-recognition software built in to the device.
Music in the Clouds
Cloud computing continued to be a big deal in 2011, particularly for music. Several services gave us the opportunity to store all our digital music on remote servers, freeing up our local storage devices or giving us the peace of mind that our music is backed up on another machine. Others gave us the chance to listen to our favorite tunes through streaming audio.
Three of the biggest launches in the United States included Amazon's Cloud Drive and Player, Google Music and Apple iCloud. Both Google and Amazon require users to upload existing music libraries to their services, a process that can take several hours if you have a huge library or a slow Internet connection. Apple's approach is to port all your iTunes music into iCloud. For a fee, you can have iTunes match songs in your library you've collected through other means to songs in the iTunes database.
All three services allow you to store music in the cloud. Google Music and Amazon Cloud Player give you streaming options to listen to your music. And all three services tie into music stores, giving you the chance to buy songs and have them instantly stored in your cloud account.
Google Gets Social (Again)
Back in 2004, a Google employee named Orkut Buyukkokten developed a social network as a special project. Google named the network after the developer, and orkut got the jump on Myspace and Facebook. But despite the head start, orkut failed to gain traction outside of a few countries.
In 2011, Google gave social networking another shot. The result was Google Plus, a social network that lets you organize people into circles. You can post to specific circles, excluding anyone you like. Or you can post to the general public, and anyone following you will be able to see what you write.
Other features included video chat sessions with up to nine other Google Plus users, unlimited storage space for photos uploaded through Google Plus and games similar to the ones you can find on other social networking sites like Facebook.
Google Plus experienced a surge of interest when it opened up to the public. But growth may have since stalled. And 2011 was a rough year for Google projects -- new CEO Larry Page ended several of them including Buzz, Desktop and Notebook, saying that they weren't performing well enough to support. Could Google Plus be far behind?
Time for Facebook
Few things set the Internet in an uproar like a change to Facebook's interface. To be fair, sometimes such changes bring along with it a host of concerns about privacy and security. But there are times when we get comfortable with a certain interface and we resist all attempts to alter it, even if the new way is demonstrably better than the old.
Facebook's Timeline organized wall posts chronologically. Once activated, the Timeline changed the appearance of a user's wall. Visitors to that wall would see that user's Facebook history laid out in a long, interactive timeline. Privacy settings let users determine who could see each piece of information.
Another feature Facebook introduced was a real-time ticker on the right side of users' News Feed section. In this Ticker, you could see what your friends were up to on Facebook. Depending upon which privacy and security settings were in play, you might see your friends commenting on someone else's Facebook profile even if you didn't know the other person.
Other big stories for Facebook came in the form of partnerships with Skype and Spotify. Facebook chat can now use Skype's video features, giving users the ability to have video calls directly through Facebook. And the integration with Spotify let users share and discover music automatically.
The Market Virtually Crashes
If you really think about it, currency is built on an agreement that little pieces of paper (or bits of metal) have a sort of intrinsic value. So why should a digital version of currency, one that was not the product of any nation or state, present any sort of problem?
That was the genesis of Bitcoin, an online, peer-to-peer currency first proposed in a 2008 research paper [source: Wallace]. There's some complicated math that keeps Bitcoin safe -- you can only spend a physical coin once and it leaves your possession, but you have to make special arrangements to keep digital money from duplicating all over the place. And there's a limited supply of Bitcoins that enter the global population only after computers solve some fiendishly difficult math problems -- a process called mining.
In 2011, Bitcoin value hit an all-time high of around $32 per coin. This was a surprise to some economists because the currency had very limited uses. Only a few merchants accepted Bitcoins as currency. And some of those merchants dealt in black market or otherwise illegal goods.
The value of Bitcoins plummeted dramatically in the second half of 2011. By October, the value of a single Bitcoin dropped below the price of producing the coins through mining. The world might not yet be ready for a stateless, digital means of exchange.
Hackers Gotta Hack -- Epsilon Scandal, Anonymous & LuzSec, Sony Targeted
Hackers were busy in 2011. There were several stories involving hackers causing mischief, damaging systems and even committing acts of espionage.
In March, the world found out about a massive hacker attack on e-mail marketer Epsilon. The company specializes in maintaining databases of customer information for other companies. The hackers stole files containing millions of people's e-mail addresses and other data. People immediately began to worry about everything from dealing with virtual mountains of spam messages to watching out for identity theft.
Sony had a tough spring and summer due to hackers. Someone breached Sony's security and accessed files for millions of Sony PlayStation and Sony Online Entertainment customers. Among the data stolen included the names and addresses of players, their usernames and passwords, birth dates, e-mail addresses and more. Sony said there was a possibility their users' credit-card information may have been stolen as well [source: Baker and Finkle]. The company shut down access to its online services for more than 20 days in order to address security concerns and investigate the matter. In the following weeks, the hackers -- or perhaps a new group of mischief-makers -- targeted the company's other assets.
It was also a big year for two groups known for their online presence: Anonymous and LulzSec. Anonymous is difficult to define, but broadly it's an activist group that leverages technology to raise awareness, make demands and occasionally cause trouble. It was mentioned in connection with the attack on Sony, though Anonymous said it wasn't responsible [source: Anderson] LulzSec is even harder to categorize. This group of hackers made it a quest to point out how computer security can be vulnerable to attacks by picking several high-profile targets. The group also expressed a sense of glee while wreaking virtual havoc. Both organizations caught the attention of law enforcement and several sting operations targeted both groups in the second half of 2011. Officials arrested a handful of people associated with both organizations, though not enough to shut them down.
Getting on a SOPA Box
In the United States government, two pieces of legislation caught the attention of the media in general and the blogosphere in particular: SOPA and Protect IP. Both proposed acts target the problems of counterfeiting and digital piracy.
One of the big challenges of battling crime on the Internet is that it's a global problem. A country's legal jurisdiction may not be able to touch someone who is guilty of perpetrating crimes online. So a record company in the United States might have very little recourse to pursue claims of copyright infringement against someone offering up the company's music for free on a site hosted in another country.
Both SOPA and Protect IP attempt to address this problem by targeting the support system that keeps pirate sites in operation. Some of the proposed actions include forcing Internet Service Providers to remove access to the pirate sites or cutting off funds by pressuring payment services like PayPal to halt payments to the sites. Opponents to the bills point out how these actions could create security vulnerabilities and censor legitimate sites. A few fear that this legislation would let private companies silence sites like Wikileaks, which regularly publishes reports that criticize governments and corporations.
As the debate waged in both the Senate with Protect IP and the House of Representatives with SOPA, we saw two sides define themselves. On the side supporting the legislation we saw organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). On the opposing side, sites like Google, eBay and Facebook spoke out against the proposed laws. As of December 2011, neither piece of legislation has been voted on by the government.
Riots and Revolution
Technology has dramatically affected the way we communicate with each other as well as how we record what's going on around us. While you can joke that the Internet is comprised mainly of cat videos, the truth is that tech played a huge role in major social and political events in 2011.
Some of those events marked moments of revolution. The Arab Spring, a series of protests and riots that took place throughout countries in the Middle East and Africa, began in late 2010. In 2011, events in countries like Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria saw citizens use technology to organize and document dramatic demonstrations against governments.
In London, two days of riots caught the world's attention. Precipitated by the death of a young man at the hands of the police, the riots seemed to be less about protesting politics and more about looting. Reports from journalists painted an ugly picture of rioters using services like BlackBerry Messenger to coordinate efforts to loot local businesses in several London neighborhoods. Rioters burnt some businesses to the ground.
Other monumental events in history took over the digital space. An IT professional named Sohaib Athar made headlines worldwide when we discovered that his Twitter messages about events in his neighborhood in Pakistan on May 1st were documenting the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. It seems like the spread of technology means we'll get citizen insight on all major historical events as they unfold from here on out.
Farewell to Steve Jobs
Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was something of a mythical figure in the tech world. He helped usher in the era of the personal computer. He was pushed out of his own company by management that found him difficult and troublesome. He returned to Apple when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into one of the most influential companies in the world after releasing groundbreaking products like the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone.
In early 2011, Jobs announced he was taking a medical leave of absence. He remained CEO of the company but wouldn't be at Apple on a day-to-day basis. In August, Jobs sent an internal memo revealing his decision to resign as CEO, stating he no longer felt competent to lead the company. He recommended to the Board that Apple COO Tim Cook take over as CEO.
Then, in October, the news broke that Steve Jobs had died. His passing prompted Apple fans around the world to visit Apple stores. Many people left flowers or notes of thanks to Jobs. The outpouring of emotion seemed more like what you'd expect after the passing of a beloved leader or celebrity, not the CEO of a technology company. His authorized biography didn't hit store shelves until late October, and yet became Amazon's best-selling book of 2011 [source: AFP].
Jobs made an undeniably huge impact on the computer and electronics industries. He was a visionary with a knack for creating user experiences that people didn't even know they wanted. He was also known for being argumentative, temperamental and aggressive. There's no one else quite like him leading in the tech industry today.
That wraps up the biggest tech stories of 2011. What might 2012 have in store for us?
The most super plugged-in know how difficult it is to break free of the biggest tech companies. HowStuffWorks looks at how hard it is and why.
More Great Links
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