A few years ago, we were told it would be no time before we were carrying only one gadget that replaced our phone, camera, GPS, internet device, portable media player, and every other doohickey that had ever been imagined. And as for those companies that were busy developing specialised or niche products, they were simply wasting their time.
But something funny happened over the past year. Yes, we finally got that convergence device (these days, just about any smartphone can handle all those tasks with aplomb), but our appetite for single-purpose gadgets didn't go away. In fact, whole new categories of gadgets popped up, and some of them turned out to be game-changers.
I've identified four breakthrough trends that had the greatest impact on the mobile device market over the past year, and taken a peek at what each means for the years to come.
THE APPLICATION WARS
The new cell phone mantra: No feature, no problem. If there's a demand for a function on a mobile device, chances are that a software developer will soon have an application capable of delivering it. 2008 saw the birth of several open and accessible mobile application stores – markets that have quickly tamed the wild west of mobile programming, and levelled the playing field for developers.
Today, anybody can create and sell programmes for mobile platforms such as Apple's iPhone and Google's Android. And if somebody has a decent product, chances are they'll make quick cash in the process (these stores typically pass at least 70 per cent of a program's sticker price directly to the developer).
The real beneficiaries of the new surge in mobile software are consumers. In the past, mobile applications were crippled, clumsy, and often ridiculously expensive (simple games such as Tetris were frequently billed on a monthly subscription basis).
Today's programs are quirky, creative, and often free.
We always dreamt our mobile phones would be real mobile computers. Thanks to these stores, and the thousands of new applications that they now distribute, that dream is finally becoming a reality.
Just a few years ago, consumers had to pay a steep premium for ultra-portable notebooks. Today, the cheapest laptops are also some of the most portable. By stripping out frills such as powerful processors, mountains of memory and large screens, manufacturers routinely sell tiny 'netbooks' for $400 (Dh2,500) or less.
Over the past year, people have bought them by the boatload. While the appeal of small low-cost computers might seem obvious in hindsight, it actually caught much of the tech world by surprise. In 2007, Palm developed a tiny netbook-like computer called the Foleo. However, the pre-release criticism thrown at the then-novel product was so overwhelming that Palm got killed it on the eve of its release. We may never know if the Foleo could have saved Palm from its current financial woes, but it probably wouldn't have hurt.
While it's not quite fair to say that 2008 was the year of the touchscreen (that trophy belongs to 2007), it was certainly the year of a particular type of touchscreen.
First, some background. Touchscreen gadgets typically use one of two types of screens: capacitive screens, which work by sensing your finger's natural electrical field, or the less-nimble but cheaper resistive screens, which sense pressure that is applied to their glass displays. Not only do capacitive screens give users a much greater feeling of control over their electronic device, but they are necessary for cool features such as multitouch.
Last year, there was only one major mobile phone product that had a capacitive screen: the iPhone (this is why it worked so much better than the first generation of lousy knock-offs).
Today, capacitive screens are commonplace, and can be found on devices such as the T-Mobile G1 and the Blackberry Storm.
Perhaps even more telling for the future is the fact that capacitive screens can now be found on larger devices, such as tablet PCs made by Lenovo Group and Hewlett-Packard.
Look for capacitive screens to spread even further over the next year, and work their way into even-bigger products, such as large-screen computer monitors, and even flatscreen television sets.
Cheap pocket-sized camcorders were everywhere over the past year. Of course, there is a simple reason for the success of products such as the Pure Digital Technologies Flip line of camcorders and Creative's Vado: special moments are often completely unexpected. Having an easy-to-use video camera that slips into a pocket or handbag greatly increases the odds of capturing those memories.
In the past year, major manufacturers such as Eastman Kodak have hopped onto the pocket-videocam bandwagon, lending the nascent category legitimacy and new features such as high-definition video.
Reliable sources tell me that at least one other major electronics company will be entering the now-crowded market in just a few weeks.
In many ways, these cameras are the videographic equivalent of netbooks: they are tiny, cheap versions of once-expensive electronics. So at this point, it should surprise nobody if 2009 brings us small, low-priced versions of other bulky and expensive gadgets.
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