As the year draws to a close, we’ve been looking back at some of the key moments of 2011 in the technology industry. And there were plenty of low points, as documented in our list of the year’s biggest tech debacles earlier this week.
But there were also lots of highlights as tech companies found their own secrets to success in different parts of the industry. Here’s our look back at the biggest triumphs of 2011 in the technology industry.
Kindle Fire launches to huge sales: When the biggest online retailer calls a product the most successful it has ever launched, that’s saying something. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet has made a splash in the tablet market, selling millions of units and cementing the Seattle retailer’s position as a creator of consumer electronics, not just a retailer.
No, the Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad, and it’s not a perfect device, but a software update has already addressed some of the early problems.
Most of all, Amazon’s decision to price the 7-inch tablet at a rock-bottom $199 was a game-changing risk that carved out a new market for low-end tablets. Now the question is whether that gamble will pay off for the company over time through increased purchasing and Amazon Prime signups from Kindle Fire users.
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 reigns in U.S.: Eleven straight months. That’s the current winning streak for the Xbox 360 in the U.S., as the Microsoft game console repeatedly tops the rival Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3 in unit sales in the domestic market, riding a second wind provided by the company’s Kinect motion sensor (pictured here) and a major Xbox Live overhaul.
Microsoft spent billions of dollars to get to this point, over many years. And the worldwide console market remains up for grabs as a much tighter race. But the Xbox stands out as a bright spot for Microsoft in the consumer market overall, and an important foothold for the company in the living room.
Apple debuts the iPad 2: Apple solidified its place atop the tablet market with the launch of the iPad 2 in March, and by September it was selling tablets at a rate of more than 11 million units per quarter — up 166 percent from the prior year. At last count Apple had sold 40 million iPads and iPad 2s overall.
It was enough for Apple CEO Tim Cook to make the bold prediction that the tablet market will eventually be larger than the market for traditional PCs, which are projected to top 360 million shipments across the industry this year.
Facebook’s big milestone: During a news conference in July, Mark Zuckerberg mentioned almost offhandedly that Facebook had reached 750 active million users. Given the increased regulatory scrutiny facing the company over privacy policies and other issues, it makes sense that Zuckerberg wouldn’t make a huge deal about the milestone.
But just for the record, 750 million is more than 10 percent of the estimated population of the entire planet. That’s a pretty big deal. The online world has gone social, and Facebook this year cemented its position in the middle of it.
Android rises to the top of mobile world: If you listen to Google’s competitors, the Android platform may be fragmented, and it might require a computer science degree to use, but it’s hard to argue with the meteoric rise of the mobile operating system. Android accounted for more than half of worldwide smartphone sales during the third quarter 52.5 percent — up from 25.3 percent during the third quarter of last year.
That’s an amazing climb, demonstrating just how topsy-turvy the smartphone market has become. The big question now: Where will Android stand at the end of 2012?
IBM’s Watson wins Jeopardy: The tech company’s supercomputer bested two legendary Jeopardy champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a major victory for artificial intelligence, or at least an impressive display of raw computing horsepower.
So what’s the meaning of Watson? We posed that question recently to Jennings.
“I guess the one thing it taught me is that we take for granted what we have in our heads,” he said. “IBM put 15 terabytes of RAM and millions of development dollars just up into beating two Jeopardy contestants. A few bucks worth of water and protein and salt and whatever else we carry around in our skulls. It sort of made me appreciate what we do everyday with cognition and language acquisition without even realizing it.”
Tech Hiring: Steve Ballmer was right: It’s all about “developers. developers. developers.” And in 2011, technology companies couldn’t hire enough of them. While parts of the economy deteriorated, the tech market held its own.
Amazon.com, for example, hired a whopping 8,000 people during the third quarter alone. Companies such as Zynga — the social gaming powerhouse and creator of FarmVille and Words With Friends — have grown from basically a seedling of an idea to more than 2,000 workers.
As the war for talent increased, companies got creative in their tactics. Startups such as SEOMoz offered cash bounties, while EnergySavvy offered a free ski vacation package at Whistler to anyone who recommended top developers who got hired
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley tech companies such as Facebook, Salesforce.com, Jawbone and others arrived on the shores of Seattle in hopes of meeting their hiring needs.
Zillow’s blockbuster IPO: Not only did Zillow complete an initial public offering, the Seattle online real estate company’s debut on Nasdaq was one of the bright spots among the crop of newly-traded tech companies. Shares of Zillow have withstood recent pressure, and are still trading above the $20 offering price. Other tech companies like Zynga and Pandora that went public in 2011 can’t make that claim.
But it wasn’t just about the IPO. Zillow turned its first quarterly profit in 2011, and was on pace to double revenue. It also purchased two companies, and topped 25 million monthly unique visitors for the first time in its history to become the second most visited online real estate company.
A lot of people talk about what Seattle needs to become a bigger tech hub. More Zillows would certainly help.