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Cellphones on the streetIt’s been a big year for mobile news. Android continued its strong growth in the smartphone market, Apple shook things up with the iPhone 4 and completely rejuvenated the tablet market with the iPad, and former mobile titans like RIM, Palm and Nokia struggled to maintain their relevancy.

I may be a little biased as VentureBeat’s lead mobile writer, but this year made it clear to me why mobile is one of the most exciting and vibrant areas in technology right now. The research firm IDC predicted in September that smartphone adoption will grow around 55 percent this year over last, and it doesn’t look like that will slow down anytime soon. Come next year, we can expect cheaper and more capable smartphones, and tablets that can finally stand up to the iPad.

But before we enter 2011, let’s take a look back at some of the best and worst stories in mobile news this year.

The Best

The iPad finally gets the tablet right, others follow suit

iPad in use

Apple’s wildly successful tablet was one of the worst kept secrets in the technology industry by the end of 2009, when multiple reports pointed to the fact that Apple was gearing up to introduce a tablet device. But not everybody was excited for yet another computing platform (myself included). But, Apple being Apple, it managed to defy expectations when the iPad was announced in January, and it continued to do so as the tablet sold like crazy, surpassing 7.5 million units sold in October.

Mere speculation of the iPad sparked an entirely new wave of tablets earlier this year, but most of those early entries failed, like the HP Slate and Microsoft Courier (more on the latter below). As it was becoming clearer that the iPad was a success, pretty much every major technology company threw their hats into the tablet arena, with the majority adopting Android as their tablet platform of choice. While Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is the only legitimate Android iPad competitor right now, we can expect even stronger competition next year. RIM also unveiled its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which looks cool, but didn’t do much to negate the company’s failure to innovate this year (see below).

Android adoption grows like wildfire thanks to killer devices

nexus sGoogle’s Android platform wasn’t truly successful until the release of the Motorola Droid in November 2009, which was buoyed by a strong anti-Apple marketing campaign. Verizon apparently spent $100 million advertising the Droid, an investment which went on to help the entire Android platform in 2011. Earlier this month, Google’s Andy Rubin said that 300,000 Android phones are now being activated every day (nearly 10 million a month), up from around 50,000 activations at the beginning of the year. In comparison, Apple recently revealed that it shipped 14.1 million iPhones in its last quarter.

We can also point to the slew of great Android devices this year as a driving force behind the platform’s success. The year started off with the first true “Google phone”, the Nexus One, which Google attempted to sell on its own through an online store. That plan didn’t work out so well for Google, but the Nexus One heralded other superpowered Android phones like the Evo 4G and Droid X. In the second half of the year, Samsung unveiled its ambitious Galaxy S line of phones across all major US carriers, which we’ll discuss further below.

Basically, if you were on the lookout for an Android phone this year, it was tough to be disappointed.

Apple’s iPhone 4: Its most polished entry yet

iphone-4Despite the many great Android phones that hit the market this year, Apple held its own with the iPhone 4 — which brought a sexy new design, high-definition video recording, front facing camera and FaceTime for video conferencing, and a high-resolution “Retina Display.” Apple didn’t increase the iPhone’s screen size to compete with larger Android phones, but the iPhone 4’s display looks so good it didn’t seem to matter that it was still 3.5-inches.

But while the iPhone 4 is definitely one of the best phones to come out this year, it isn’t without it’s problems, as we’ll discuss below.

Samsung comes out of nowhere to become a major Android manufacturer

Samsung has been building mobile phones for years now, and it’s also released a couple of low-end Android phones. So you can imagine the surprise when, seemingly out of nowhere, Samsung unveiled an entire family of high-end Android smartphones featuring its droolworthy 4-inch Super AMOLED screens and its powerful 1-gigahertz Hummingbird processor. And the company didn’t just focus on hardware — Samsung also managed to bring its Galaxy S phones across all major U.S carriers.

The company’s ambition has seemed to pay off. Samsung announced in November that it shipped 3 million Galaxy S phones in the US, and earlier this month we reported that it stole the top Android manufacturer throne from Motorola. Much of the hardware in the Galaxy S phones went into Samsung’s Galaxy Tab tablet, which has sold 1 million units two months after it launched. And of course, Samsung’s Galaxy S experience led directly to the Nexus S, the second Google phone and Nexus One successor.

Front-facing cameras for mobile video chat

Before we knew the official specifications of the iPhone 4, it was widely known that it would pack a front-facing camera for mobile video conferencing. At the time, I argued that the iPhone 4 would spur on a wave of innovation in mobile video chat, something I believed would be the next killer feature in smartphones. When Apple finally unveiled the iPhone 4, its FaceTime mobile video chat software was one of the biggest announcements. Finally, we had a simple way to initiate mobile video chats from our phones as easily as making a standard phone call.

While FaceTime is certainly restricted by only working on WiFi networks, Apple made the technology even more useful by bringing the software to Macs and the most recent iPod Touch version (which also sports cameras).

Android phones like the Evo 4G, MyTouch 4G and Nexus S also feature front-facing cameras, and I suspect the feature will become even more common next year. The new wave of front cameras also opened the doors for mobile video chat startups like Tango, which has created mobile video chat apps that will work across the iPhone and Android.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 is surprisingly cool

Samsung's Focus Windows Phone 7 devicePerhaps it was the low expectations going in, but count me as shocked that Microsoft was actually able to make a desirable smartphone platform in Windows Phone 7 — one that offered some key difference from its competitors, as well as an attractive and refreshing user interface.

Microsoft announced WP7 in February, but didn’t officially launch the phones until October. And by that point, it was obvious that Microsoft was going to do whatever it took to regain its relevancy in mobile devices. The company reportedly spent around $500 million marketing WP7, and racked up about 15,000 app developers a few weeks after the phones hit shelves. Microsoft announced yesterday that its partners have shipped 1.5 million phones to carriers and retailers, which doesn’t tell us much about actual users, but it’s a sign that consumers definitely want the phones.

Microsoft knew what it needed to succeed: Attractive high-end smartphones, a strong app community and a modern OS. With Windows Phone 7, it managed to put together all of the right pieces to deliver a platform that can just about match the iPhone and Android, even if it is several years too late.


Microsoft’s Kin: The phones nobody wanted

Kin. Need I say anything else? From the moment Microsoft announced the Kin phones, its misguided attempt at capturing the youth market, it was clear that Kin was an idea several years too late. They were severely restricted phones that had subscription plans just as expensive as real smartphones. So it was no surprise when Microsoft, surely with plenty of egg on its face, ended up killing the project several weeks after the phones hit stores.

At the time of the Kin’s death, I wrote:

What started as an ambitious attempt to justify Microsoft’s purchase of Danger, the company behind the popular Sidekick messaging phones, turned into a misguided attempt at trying to figure out what young people find cool. Never mind that many teenagers and twenty-somethings had already moved on to legitimate smartphone platforms.

The Kin phones lacked an application store and seemingly basic functionality like a calendar and instant messaging software — a glaring omission for something aimed at “connected” youth. Ultimately, the Kin’s failure is one Microsoft needs to remember: Instead of trying to force-feed a lackluster product to consumers, perhaps it should devote more time on creating something people actually want — like it did with the Xbox 360.

Microsoft kills the Courier dual-screen “digital journal”

At a time when every company seemed hell-bent on taking on the iPad with tablets of their own, Microsoft’s Courier was a breath of fresh air. Courier was a dual-screened “digital journal” that was touch-screen capable, but also featured a stylus pen for hand written text, diagrams and more. Video demonstrations of the product made it seem like the evolution of the digital planner, combined with a personal journal and web-enabled tablet.

It was an ambitious move for Microsoft — so of course the company killed it before the project even got off the ground.

iPhone 4 design issues: Antennagate, glassgate and the elusive white iPhone 4

As beautiful as Apple’s iPhone 4 may be, it became clear over the course of the year that Apple may have actually over-designed the phone to the point where its looks was interfering with its functionality.

The first big issue was antennagate: As soon as the iPhone 4 started getting into consumers’ hands, many began to notice that they could repeatedly kill their iPhone’s reception by holding the lower-left corner of the device. This time around, Apple made the device’s antenna an integral part of its design, and it appeared as if that allowed users to easily block reception. The issue became so widely known that Apple CEO Steve Jobs held an unprecedented press event to address the issue, where he mentioned that it’s fairly easy to block any phone’s reception in a similar manner. Jobs admitted that Apple isn’t perfect, and instituted a program to offer free cases to every iPhone 4 owner.

But the iPhone 4’s troubles didn’t stop there. Several gadget sites eventually reported on another phenomenon, dubbed “Glassgate”, where certain cases that slid onto the back of the iPhone could trap dirt and debris, eventually leading to scratches and cracks on its rear glass panel. Apple never admitted to the issue, but ended up removing sliding cases from its online stores and retail locations. The company is reportedly investigating just how widespread the issue is. It doesn’t appear to be affecting as many users as antennagate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple is keen on avoiding any further controversy with the iPhone 4.

The iPhone 4’s design was also reportedly the reason we never saw a white version of the device. Apple showed off white iPhone 4s when it was first announced, but that version never found its way to stores. Apparently, the white iPhone 4’s glass back was leaking in light — to the point where it was washing out pictures taken by the device’s camera. The issue was apparently discovered at the last-minute by Apple. The company ended up delaying the release of the white iPhone 4 three times without explanation– now it’s expected to land some time in Spring 2011.

HP buys Palm … and does nothing with it

Following lackluster sales of the Palm Pre and Pixi, former mobile leader Palm was in a tough spot at the beginning of the year, and it quickly became obvious that the company was looking to sell. HP ended up snagging the company for a cool $1.2 billion after a frenzied bidding war from four other major companies. The acquisition showed that HP was serious about becoming a player in the smartphone business, and we argued it had the potential to completely reshape the mobile computing landscape.

That may still happen eventually, but for now it doesn’t look like HP has done much with Palm. In October, the company announced the next version of Palm’s innovative webOS operating system, but at the same time it revealed the Palm Pre 2, which was nothing more than a speed upgrade to the original Pre. At a time when killer Android phones were coming left and right, it seemed downright crazy that Palm still didn’t have a major new handset. At least HP seems interested in bringing webOS to tablets early next year with the “PalmPad.”

RIM and Nokia continue their downward spiral into irrelevancy

I suppose it was too much to ask to see some spark of innovation from either Research in Motion or Nokia this year. Both companies managed to release new flagship devices that somehow feel several years too late.

RIM unveiled the BlackBerry Torch in August, it’s first attempt at combining a multitouch screen with its beloved BlackBerry hardware keyboard, which ran its new BlackBerry 6 operating system. Unfortunately, the new OS wasn’t the major upgrade that RIM needed to compete with more modern competitors, and the Torch was hampered by a slow processor and low display resolution. In the end, it was a minor release when RIM needed something major. Next year RIM may release a phone featuring the next-generation OS on its PlayBook tablet, but who knows when that will actually happen.

Nokia faced similar software problems with its N8 smartphone. In my review, I found the N8’s hardware to be impressive, but it was ultimately hampered by its aging Symbian OS. Nokia too is gearing up to release a next-generation OS next year, dubbed Meego, together with Intel. But Meego has seen some serious delays, and unless it comes out early next year, it risks being too little, too late, for Nokia.

[Photo via Ed Yourdon]

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