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Top tech in 2010: Android OS, iPad and Netflix and Dropbox

The iPad created new computing platform. But without cloud - apps like Netflix Dropbox it would be nowhere as useful.

The iPad created a new computing platform. But without the cloud - and apps like Netflix and Dropbox, it would be nowhere as useful.

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Updated: January 1, 2011 5:38PM

It’s nice that the tech industry is so well-organized that the Future doesn’t happen until we’re all a little bit into the new year. By the time we pundits have taken down the tree, polished off the last of the tin of fudge that our collective aunt has sent us, and have resolved to never again get into a drinking contest with anyone who can recite the text of the Rolling Rock Beer label from memory, our senses of both sight and adventure have returned and we’re ready for all of the announcements that will soon be made from the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

At the end of the year, though, we still have the luxury of living in the past and sifting 2010’s embers for conclusions and insights. After several days on the sofa I’m inclined to conclude that three companies in particular had themselves a Very Significant Year ... a year filled not just with successes, but with critical successes that helped define themselves and their places in the tech industry.

3: The Android OS

2010 was truly a transformative year for Android. It’s made such a huge leap in the past 12 months that an Android 1.6 phone from late 2009 would be completely unrecognizable. Android 2.3 is a fully mature mobile OS and anybody who feels as though they can’t describe or discuss it except in terms of how it compares to the iPhone OS hasn’t been paying attention. 2010 was also the year in which Android moved from being a niche handset OS to being absolutely freaking everywhere.

In addition to its full feature set and its unique personality, though, 2010 was the year in which Android’s role in the mobile industry was finally clarified and defined for the foreseeable future:

Clearly, Android is the skinless, boneless chicken breast of mobile computing.

Yes, it’s everywhere. It’s a successful commercial staple of the industry. But it’s just a basic ingredient that gets processed, flavored, and interpreted by many sets of hands before the end-user gets to experience it. And God knows what these processors do to it before it’s served. Some carve it carefully, stuff it with apples and dried cherries, rubs it with rosemary and garlic, and bakes it to perfection. Others grind it into a course powder, mix it into a slurry with gels and extenders, mold it into a cutlet-like shape, and then sell it as a bland sandwich in a nationally-franchised sub shop for a suspiciously-low price.

That’s precisely the sort of thing that happens after Google releases a terrific new edition of Android. First, the phone manufacturers adapt it to suit whatever their goals are this quarter and their own idea of what a handset should and shouldn’t do. They’ll enhance some bits of the OS, cripple others, and throw away some parts entirely. Then the manufacturer releases the handset to the mobile carriers, who then make their own rounds of changes.

Even when the results are wonderful — they often are — the consumer’s relationship is with the carrier and not with Google. An even better new edition of Android will be released and it could be months before the carrier releases a version that’ll work with a specific handset. And an updated build might never be released at all, if the carrier feels as though it’s time to goad the customer into coming back into the store for a new phone and a new two-year contract.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab (the first good alternative to the iPad) is a case in point. Samsung designed a spiffy piece of hardware and made it available for sale through every wireless carrier. But the features available through those carriers are tricky. A Verizon Tab won’t work with Bluetooth keyboards. An AT&T Tab can’t share its 3G connection with your notebook computer via WiFi.

And we haven’t even gotten into the differences in the contract terms for each of these carriers. If the experience is this inconsistent among multiple users of the exact same piece of hardware, try to picture how bad things get when we try to define “The Android 2.3 experience” across multiple manufacturers.

Developers wrestle with this problem constantly. High-performance apps (such as games, media players, chat software, and emulators) only work well when the developer exploits all of a device’s specific hardware resources. In Android space, a developer has to consider multiple devices in multiple families. Is it any wonder that Skype rolled out an iPhone edition of their new video-enabled chat client in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations, and have only announced Android as “a priority for 2011”? If the Android Marketplace stays a pace or two behind the iPhone’s App Store every year, this will be one of the major reasons.

Android’s big win of 2010 is its explosive popularity. It’s surpassed the iPhone in raw international numbers of activated handsets and even if Apple gave a damn about that statistic (they don’t) they wouldn’t have any real means to reverse it.

But it was an expensive win. I’ve stopped seeing any of these gadgets as Android devices. Instead, it’s a Motorola phone, and a Samsung tablet, and a Barnes & Noble book reader. Google, and Android, have no perceptual connection to them whatsoever.

Android, simply put, in no way presents itself as a promotable feature of these devices. When a consumer sees a phone with the Apple logo on it or a notebook with a Windows 7 sticker on it, they can start off with a basic understanding of what they’re getting — the good with the bad. But the statement “this device runs Android” means absolutely nothing without a lot of further information and hands-on experience. It’s like saying that the device is based on Texas Instruments’ OMAP 3 CPU, or that the case is made from a really awesome kind of plastic.

And that has to be considered a major failure for such an important Google product.

But that’s not the worst news about Android in 2010. The worst news is the phone industry’s clear and consistent attitude, proven over a year’s worth of great and wretched Android handsets. They consider the Android OS to be a free pile of software that saves them a buttload of development costs. They don’t seem to think of it as a something that brings a functional advantage to be praised and extended.

What these companies do to the Android OS is practically criminal. My Nexus One phone runs the edition of Android that left Google Intergalactic HQ. It’s Google’s vision, unmessed-with. In many ways, it’s beautiful. I’m an iPhone user and I envy many of its components.

And many third-party enhancements to Android are quite splendid. Do a YouTube search for “MIUI.” This is a replacement ROM and OS, built by the worldwide Android developer community, available for a selection of existing handsets. It’s still the Android OS, but it’s been given one hell of a makeover that incorporates a lot of the best UI ideas from every mobile OS out there. MIUI shows off the polish, clarity, function, and simplicity that could be on every Android device, if only the carriers and handset manufacturers only wished for those things.

Alas, they really don’t. The carriers are content to sell consumers a footlong chicken sub for $2.99 instead of giving them an experience that’s exceptional in any way.

If Google ever catches up to Apple’s ability at turning a first-time iPhone buyer into a lifelong Apple customer, it won’t happen until a serious revolution takes place. It’ll probably need to be an armed revolution, too; one that replaces Google’s hippie, tree-hugging “whatever you guys want to do is fine by us” philosophy with one that defines what a user has a right to expect from an Android device. When you tell your neighbor that you don’t care what they do to your lawn, you have to expect to wake up one morning and find that he’s dumped a few rusted-out old appliances on it.

But I promise you that Google cares even less about the $2.99 Chicken Sub effect than Apple cares about the iPhone’s market share, strictly speaking. Google’s whole business is based on inserting as much Google code into as much of your life as possible. From their perspective, a hundred mediocre Android phones serve the company’s mission statement better than five superb ones.

The great Android devices are out there. Consumers just have to work a lot harder than they ought to if they want to find them.

2. The iPad, and iOS4

Well, obviously. Apple had a hell of a year. You’d need to be dangerously over-caffeinated (or on the Apple payroll) to actually overstate what Apple achieved with the iPad in 2010. They invented a whole new category of computing.

Alright, yes, they did it only in the same sense that they “invented” the mouse-based computer. But for cripes’ sake: Apple had sold 7.5 million iPads even before the holiday season. Everybody’s talking about new tablets that HP, Motorola, RIM will introduce at the Consumer Electronics Show. Those companies sure aren’t trying to ride on the commercial coattails of 1989’s GRiDPad.

Apple sent me an iPad for review and I liked it so much that I bought the 3G model as soon as online ordering began. Seven months later, the honeymoon continues. I’m writing this column on my iPad right now, in fact. It’s the “crossover” computer that I’ve always wanted. It’s thin and light enough that I take it with me whenever I’m going to be out of the office for a few hours, just as a matter of policy. And yet it’s flexible and powerful enough to serve as my sole computer when I’m going to be away for two or three days.

From the years 2 to 1 B.iP., I had a superb little ASUS netbook that roughly filled that same role. But as much as I loved the Seashell, it was always just a small notebook PC with a bunch of acceptable compromises laid on top of it. I was always adapting my work to fit into the limited capabilities of the hardware.

The iPad represents a new relationship between the computer and the user. It’s a blank frame. The OS and even the app you’re using at any given moment tend to take two or three steps into the background and steers your full focus on the task at hand. It’s not a word processor: it’s the document you’re writing. It’s not a movie player: it’s the movie. It’s not a web browser: it’s the article you’re reading. The iPad becomes whatever you need it to be at any given moment.

It would be a lie to not say that I truly love my iPad.

Which brings us to a common observation about Apple’s products and its users: “People’s preference for Apple devices is an emotional response.” Sometimes the commentator is making a neutral observation, but sometimes it’s clearly meant as a sneering dismissal.

There’s only one possible response to this statement:

Well, duh!

Of course people have an emotional response to this iPad. Why is that considered a negative thing? An emotional response that lasts more than five seconds is a sign that something actually works.

An emotional response is the reason why the power, purpose, and intent of a Jackson Pollock is clear at first glance, and a fraud presents itself as just a random collection of paint splatters just as quickly.

It’s why a sketch of Wonder Woman drawn by Adam Hughes is an illustration of a character who’s vibrant, dimensional, intelligent, and (good God, yes) sexy, whereas the images of the same character drawn by so many others are just vulgar and tacky pinups.

It’s how you can pick up one camera and instantly sense that its layout of menus and buttons is fundamentally screwy and Dada-esque, while another one with just as many buttons on it has a logical, carefully-worked-out design whose logic will become second-nature to you after you’ve had some more experience with it.

It’s how you can sense that an “American Idol” finalist is a mere singer and not a true vocalist. It’s why you know that the forest green shirt will go well with the black jacket and the brown pants, but not the orange cardigan and the blue pants. It’s how you can taste the difference between a Coke made with real sugar bottled just last week, and a store-brand cola that’s spent a couple of months stored next to a baseboard heating unit.

An emotional response isn’t a rational response. But those aren’t opposing forces: they’re complementary ones, like yin and yang. A rational response comes from carefully running benchmarks and researching technical specifications and running some experiments. That works great for things that can easily be plugged into a spreadsheet.

But many things in this world are frustratingly analog. For those kinds of decisions, a person’s collective life experience and learning produces a fast, intuitive, and generally reliable answer: this thing is Right, or this thing is Wrong.

The iPad is overwhelmingly Right. And if a commentator says that the emotional response that this device provokes in users is just a triumph of style and marketing over function and power, and a sign of a gullible consumer who’s succombs to trendy marketing instead of a user who thinks critically and expects a device to meet some very high expectations, then clearly, that commentator is just a damned idiot.

I could produce a list of all of the things that Motorola and HP and Rim and Samsung and all of 2011’s tablet-makers will have to do in order to approach Apple’s success with the iPad. But really, nothing is as important as inspiring that fundamental, holistic sense of Rightness that permeates the iPad from top to bottom.

So for the foreseeable future, nobody is going to be able to compete with the iPad. At best, these other companies can only exploit the markets that Apple isn’t serving (like people whose pants pockets aren’t big enough to hold a dinner plate). It’s hard to imagine any bigger or more decisive Win for Apple than that.

1. Netflix and Dropbox

But #1 on my 2010 list of companies that had A Significant 2010 is more of a group award: this spot goes to the companies that have taken the term “cloud services” and moved it away from a vague buzzphrase and turned it into useful — and in some cases, indispensable — services.

I’ve chosen Netflix and Dropbox to step up to the podium and collect the physical award (it’s actually one of my Dad’s old golf trophies ... sorry, I’ll see if I can print up some sort of certificate that’ll look better hanging in a lobby) because of their unusual accomplishments this year. Google moved Android to the next level of utility and consumer acceptance. Good job. Apple invented the slate computer. Oh, that’s definitely going into the family Christmas letter; well done.

But in 2010, Netflix and Dropbox proved that they have some serious power and influence. They demonstrated their ability to bless and validate the hardware and services produced by much larger companies. They can take a good product and make it a great one. If it’s already a great product, it can become ungodly great if it supports these services.

Netflix, in particular, became a clear kingmaker. It doesn’t matter if you’re Google or Apple or Sony: if you’re producing a piece of hardware that adds digital media features to a TV, you don’t dare release it without a Netflix app. Without that feature, it’s dead in the water.

Just look at the Apple TV. It was on the market for years. Apple developed the box, the library software that manages a user’s video and music, and a store filled with movies and TV shows.

Despite all of these advantages, it was a largely irrelevant product. Apple saved face by referring to Apple TV as “a hobby” for the company and refusing to release sales figures. The most important new feature of the 2010 edition? It streams Netflix content. Apple is now very happy to tell anybody who’ll listen that they’ve just sold their first million.

And as much as I love my iPad, it’d be a different device in a world without Dropbox.

Pre-Dropbox, putting data on mobile devices reminded me of George Carlin’s “A Place For My Stuff” routine, where he was always packing smaller and smaller versions of “his stuff” during trips. I had one version of “my stuff” for my desktop, a smaller version for my notebook, another for my old netbook, and an even smaller one for my phone.

Dropbox redefined that whole relationship. I never sync files. There’s a built-in implication that this file I’m working on right now will be accessible from my desktop, my iPhone, and the Android device I’ll be playing with tomorrow.

One of the downsides of the iPad’s closed system is that you can’t just mount it as a storage device and copy files from your desktop. Dropbox renders that limitation irrelevant. Why would I even want to hook it up to my computer via USB? Simply opening the file directly via the iPad Dropbox app is so much simpler.

Dropbox places its benediction on any computer or gadget I consider purchasing. No matter how cheap or expensive, large or small, powerful or single-task the device is, I know that if it has a Dropbox client app I know I’ll have no problems integrating it with all of my existing projects and files. It’s so much harder to keep my pursestrings tied these days. Dropbox keeps whispering things in my ear like “But Andy, you can use this book reader to proofread draft manuscripts ... you won’t even need to sync any files ...”

So you see why I rank these services at the top of the list for 2010. Apple or Google got to design their products from the ground up and they had full control over their entire working universes. Dropbox and Netflix had the more complex task: they designed services that harmonize with and enhance huge range of present and future devices. That requires true insight.

And in technology, as in middle-school report cards, “plays well with others” marks something as the presumptive MVP.

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