No other two-year span in the history of consumer electronics has both wrought and promises as much radical change as last year and this new year. While there may have been years with one or two significant product introductions and advancements — 1920: the first radio broadcast, 1939: the introduction of TV, 1947: the invention of the transistor, 1982-83: the introduction of the CD and launching of the first cellphone systems — no two-year span has been as chuck full of potentially behavior-changing technology in television, digital imaging, car electronics, gaming and especially cellphones. There is so much happening on so many fronts, even I'm having trouble keeping up with it all.
But we can narrow our time frame even further — more like 18 months, from the near simultaneous introductions of the first 3D HDTVs and the iPad last spring to AT&T's pending launch of its 4G LTE network sometime this summer. In between — a series of stunning technological leaps.
Here's what I think has and will make 2010-2011 the most memorable tech years ever.
My seemingly hyperbolic pronouncement about 2010-2011's tech primacy does not come lightly. I am the unofficial historian for the Consumer Electronics Association (the folks who throw CES), am an elector to CEA's Hall of Fame and have written many of the inductee bios, and have written extensively about tech history, such as the development of video recording, the cellphone and the top 10 technological advancements of the last decade for American Heritage of Invention & Technology magazine.
The modern era also tends to lend itself to "most fruitful ever" because of the sheer range of technologies, but that doesn't minimize how much tech change we've experienced and will experience this year.
Of Tabs, Tape
In the wake of the ridiculous success of the iPad and, to a lesser degree, Samsung's Galaxy Tab, everyone suddenly thinks they, too, can sell tablet PCs. Yes, 2011 will be the year of the tablet, but not in a good way. BlackBerry, Coby, Creative Labs, Dell, Lenovo, Motorola, NEC, Sylvania, Toshiba, Viewsonic and Vizio were among the familiar names unveiling Android-based tablets at CES, along with a bunch of companies neither I nor likely you have ever heard of or will hear from again. Aluratek? Augen? Cydle? Enspert? Gentouch? Naxa? Noah? Sungale?
Where's Acme? I'm sure Wile E. Coyote (super genius) wants to buy a tablet PC, and there's nothing like brand loyalty.
Do any of these companies think we want to buy a tablet PC? No, we don't. What we want is an iPad. And even if we didn't want an iPad, how is anyone supposed to differentiate between these dozens of look-alike Android tablets? And with so many Android tabs to choose from, even anti-Apple consumers, drowning in a sea of competing Android tab specs, are likely to throw up their hands, surrender to the inevitable, and buy an iPad — if they buy any tablet at all.
And the same goes for all the no-name companies thinking we need ereader choices beyond Kindle, Nook or even Kobo.
2011 will be the year of the tablet and ereaders, all right — the tablet/ereader holocaust. What a stupid waste.
In the meantime, say goodbye to the end of videotape. No major camcorder maker makes tape-based models for the first time since the Sony Betacam was introduced in 1983.
And while there may be nothing to watch on TV in 3D, Sony, Panasonic, JVC, DXG and Aiptek all will be selling 3D camcorders in 2011, with models ranging in price from $300 for the DXG-5F9V (May) to $2,000 for the JVC GS-TD1 (March).
And TV — at Home
Speaking of TV, our home boob tube is morphing into a more intelligent and sophisticated companion, although it may take another year or so for all the radical changes to seem normal.
We've had "connected" or "smart" TVs for more than a year, but they've been segregated — the Web widgets were one thing, TV was another. And according to NPD, even though sales of connected TVs are booming, less than half of them were actually connected.
Google attempted to desegregate the TV and Web environments with its Google TV platform last October. But Google has had to re-jigger its user interface, which was universally condemned by critics and users.
If Google can't get its interface act together quickly, they're leaving the door open to a certain company in Cupertino. Apple says it has sold a million of Steve Jobs' "hobby," Apple TV, and last September, the company has made a deal with electronic program guide supplier Rovi. Maybe, just maybe, Apple will introduce a true Apple TV, an LCD HDTV with a big widescreen, internet access to iTunes and apps, built-in Blu-ray player and DVR, and an interface any blue-haired grandma could suss.
Now that the Web is regularly sharing space with regular TV, we're going to need a bigger TV. With Web widget menus taking up a third of the available 16 x 9 HDTV screen real estate, two TV makers, Vizio and Philips, will start selling ultra widescreen 21 x 9 HDTVs. Cinemascope and Panavision 2.35:1 films can be viewed with no black bars above or below, and, more importantly, widget menus can take up a third of the vertical screen real estate leaving a full 16 x 9 area left for simultaneous TV watching.
Also shooting themselves in the foot are the 3D HDTV manufacturers. Less than a year ago, they introduce an "active" 3D technology requiring battery-powered glasses retailers can't seem to explain or demonstrate.
Then, at the just concluded CES, JVC, LG and Vizio all introduced "passive" 3D HDTVs that use the same simple 3D glasses you use in a movie theater. But even unpowered passive 3D means you're essentially wearing sunglasses indoors. And, according to Larry David, the only people who wear sunglasses indoors are blind people and assholes.
So a few folks like LG, Sony and Toshiba also showed off glasses-free 3D, like that's going to happen any time soon. It's not.
But 3D is here. 3D HDTVs happen to also make the best 2D HDTVs. There are a growing number of 3D Blu-ray movies available — and by the end of this year nearly all Blu-ray players will be 3D capable — including a 3D Avatar Blu-ray you can buy sans a Panasonic 3D HDTV (which, by the way, is the best HDTV of any kind available), and more and more networks will be broadcasting 3D, especially big sporting events.
In addition, we'll be seeing a lot more 3D games, especially now that Nvidia has unveiled 3DTV Play software and the 3D Vision kit, which not only turns more than 500 regular 2D PC games into 3D, but lets you play 2D PC games in 3D on any 3D HDTV when your HDTV is connected to one of the growing number of HDMI-connected Nvidia GeForce-equipped laptop PCs from Dell, HP, Toshiba and Asus. A list of convertible 2D games is available on Nvidia's Web site and the game packages themselves will be marked "3D Vision Ready."
Sony already is combining 3D on the PS3 with its new Move, which along with Microsoft's Kinect and the existing Nintendo Wii, is making gesture-control the most important gaming advance since the move from cartridges to CD. And both Texas Instruments and Vizio have shown a "dual view" 3D — wearing 3D glasses, each player will see a different view of the same game, handy when setting strategies on-screen.
So, yes, regardless of how ridiculous 3D HDTV seems now, 2011 will be the year 3D comes of age, stupid or not.
And Away from Home
And finally, more than a year after adopting the standard, Mobile DTV may finally be coming to a laptop or iPad/iPhone/iPod near you via antenna dongles, MDTV-equipped cellphones, portable DVD players, and dedicated portable TVs.
This round-up represents only a fraction of the technological changes coming in 2011. I'll have more next week.