Bv Rory Cellan-Jones
BBC News Technology correspondent
It has been a momentous year, with riots, revolutions, natural disasters and economic crises. And looking back month by month, technology has played a big part in many of those stories, while making plenty of its own headlines. So here’s this blog’s review of 2011.
January: Twitter proves its worth
This was the year that social networking proved that it was about more than trivia, with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry playing vital – if disputed – roles in organising everything from the Arab Spring to the London riots.
In January, as news broke of the shooting of an American congresswoman, Twitter proved its worth as a rolling news service. It also came under pressure from the US Department of Justice to name users connected with Wikileaks – this was also a year when social networks had to circle the wagons as governments questioned their motives.
February: Nokia’s burning platform
In the battle for the fast-growing and very lucrative smartphone market, there has been one clear loser – Nokia. The Finnish giant dominated the mobile phone industry for years, but by this February was watching Apple and Android race away with the profits and market share. In what became known as the burning platform memo, Nokia’s new boss Stephen Elop told his staff just how bad a pickle they were in.
March: Broadband – still not delivering
Throughout the year, the question of broadband quality and availability in the UK has been a very hot topic for readers of this blog.
In March an Ofcom report showed that most broadband packages were delivering less than half the speed promised in the advertising. As the copper telephone network struggled to deliver faster internet connections, the demand for a fibre-based network grew.
April: PlayStation goes offline
All kinds of data and services are now moving off personal computers and into the cloud – banks of servers in huge data centres. But in April there was a warning of what could go wrong.
After a hacker attack that could have put user details at risk, Sony took its PlayStation Network offline, leaving 75 million gamers bereft.
As a few giant companies ask us to trust them with all of our data, the rewards for hackers and the concerns for consumers keep getting more serious.
May: The £15 computer
How can Britain produce a new computer literate generation which will go out and build the Google of the future? A question asked by, among others, Google’s Eric Schmidt, games industry executives, and even the prime minister. In May, David Braben, came to show me his solution, a £15 computer designed to inspire school children to learn the basics of computer coding.
June: Another dotcom bubble
While much of the global economy stuttered, technology companies still managed to attract plenty of excitement amongst investors. Groupon, LinkedIn, and Zynga were among the businesses enjoying an IPO – a stock market launch – at valuations that many considered outlandish.
Back in June, though, I wondered whether I wondered whether the air was already coming out of the latest tech bubble, as shares in the professional network LinkedIn and the internet radio service Pandora fell back after the initial euphoria.
As the year ends, shares in both companies are around the same level as they were back in June. The bubble hasn’t quite burst but it looks as though investors are saving any euphoria they might have about technology shares for the Facebook IPO in 2012.
July: Spotify heads West
The music streaming service Spotify is one of the very few European businesses to show Silicon Valley a thing or two about disruptive technology.
But for all its success in Europe countries, its long-term survival was in doubt until it cracked the American market. In July after years of painstaking negotiations with the big labels, Spotify finally arrived in the United States.
With a huge boost from its alliance with Facebook, the service now has more than 2.5 million paying customers. But the music industry still has its doubts about this and other digital services – artists are unhappy about the few pennies they get for every play on Spotify, and the labels continue to play hardball over licensing agreements.
August: Mapping mobile Britain
It is not just the state of broadband which gets people fired up – mobile phone coverage is becoming a really big issue, as more of us depend on smartphones for our connected lives.
In the summer more than 44,000 people helped us build a crowdsourced map of 3G coverage in the UK.
The results , even in big cities. And with large parts of rural Britain still unable to get a reliable 3G signal, there are signs that the digital divide between town and country is getting ever wider.
September: Google gets social
Google remains the most successful new technology business of the last decade, churning out ever bigger profits from its domination of search-based advertising. But its attempts to be big in social networking – the biggest phenomenon of recent years – have stuttered.
Google+ was its latest attempt – a direct challenge to Facebook, offering users more refined privacy settings and innovations like live video “hangouts”.
It received rave reviews from what I described as “the geek community”, and was then thrown open to allcomers. Since then, there has been little information on how much interest it has attracted from a wider public. Whenever I check out Google+, I find plenty of lively activity from the technology crowd – but I still can’t spot any of my less geeky friends hanging out.
October: Steve Jobs 1955-2011
The death of Steve Jobs was undoubtedly the technology story that attracted most interest this year. It was an opportunity to assess the life of a man whose determination to force his company, his industry, the whole world, to come round to his way of thinking had both positive and negative consequences.
Jobs’ death was announced a couple of days after the rather lacklustre launch of the iPhone 4S, where many felt his successor Tim Cook had failed to shine. Having been rather harsh in my own assessment of his performance, I then realised that I had been unfair to a man who must have been under enormous strain. Hence the apology.
But after reading Walter Isaacson’s warts’n’all biography of Jobs, it is clearer than ever that Tim Cook will struggle to be as ruthless, as obsessive, as borderline insane as his predecessor in driving Apple forward.
November: Shoreditch v Silicon Valley
A year after announcing a plan to turn East London into a hi-tech hotspot to rival Silicon Valley, the prime minister returned to Shoreditch to celebrate what had been achieved so far.
Boosters of Tech City, as the areas has been dubbed, say it’s now Europe’s fastest growing technology cluster. But sceptics ask whether a clutch of small-scale webdesign and new media firms around Silicon Roundabout will ever produce a Google or a Facebook.
And other hi-tech clusters – from Cambridge to Dundee – wonder why they are not getting the same amount of loving attention from the government.
December: DIY fibre broadband
And as we arrive at the end of 2011, my month by month formula means I’ve left out a number of interesting stories – from the patent wars, to the various disasters that have befallen the Blackberry firm RIM.
But let’s end on a positive note, with a group of people who have decided that, when it comes to getting better broadband connections, it is time to stop whingeing and start doing something.
Last week saw the launch of the B4RN project, which sees local communities in Lancashire, Cumbria and North Yorkshire clubbing together to try to give themselves fast fibre broadband.
Good luck to them – and to everybody else hoping that 2012 will see more advances in the way we use technology.
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