When I look back at the past year in mobility, I see two distinct camps. Those who stepped up to the plate, and those who lost their way. The winners took risks and out-innovated the competition. The losers either played it safe or failed to execute. Here’s my list of winning and losing mobile tech companies in ’09.
To say HTC is on a roll would be an understatement. The company that once quietly pumped out Windows Mobile devices with little or no brand recognition took the smart phone world by storm this year, thanks to its keen focus on delivering better user experiences. The Sense interface for the HTC Hero and Droid Eris makes Android much more user-friendly and customizable than the stock OS. And the extreme makeover HTC gave Windows Mobile in the HD2 proves that the company will be a force to be reckoned with in 2010. Watch your back, Nokia and Samsung.
Make no mistake, overtaking Dell as the No. 2 PC maker in the world is a huge deal. Acer owes much of its growth to the netbook phenomenon, a market that the company has dominated during the past year because of its sleek designs and low prices. The company has also been more aggressive than the competition in embracing new technologies, including Intel’s ULV processors and new 3D displays. While it remains to be seen whether Acer can compete in the cut-throat smart phone space, the pace of its growth is impressive.
Palm was supposed to be the comeback story of the year, but this tale has a better script. Early in the year, the company that created the first commercial portable cell phone was virtually on death’s door as a result of its addiction to Razr clones. Then, new co-CEO Sanjay Jha rallied the troops to focus almost exclusively on Android smart phones. The result? A hip, social networking-friendly device in the Motorola Cliq and a monster hit in the Motorola Droid for Verizon Wireless, which will likely eclipse more than one million devices sold by the end of the year. The company says it is planning 20 new smart phones for next year. Looks like Moto found its mojo.
Sure, Android gives Google some momentum. And Microsoft is back on track with Windows 7. But Apple isn’t exactly standing still. During the past year the company produced another huge hit with the iPhone 3GS and blew past the 100,000 app mark, dwarfing the combined competition. The iPod touch is a gaming powerhouse that has Nintendo and Sony on its heels. And Apple continues to churn out high-quality Mac notebooks for which consumers are willing to pay a premium. With an iTablet (which could bury Amazon’s Kindle) streaming iTunes (courtesy of its Lala acquisition) and an all-you-can-eat video subscription service all rumored to be on the horizon, Apple shows no signs of slowing down.
Nvidia proved to the world in 2009 that graphics aren’t just for gaming. Its Ion platform for netbooks transformed these once-underpowered devices into multimedia machines capable of playing high-def video. It’s no coincidence that the Ion-powered HP Mini 311 has been the most popular review on our site for months, and ASUS, Lenovo, and Samsung are rolling out their own Ion systems. Nvidia’s CUDA technology has also impressed, dramatically improving such tasks as video editing. Meanwhile, Nvidia 3D Vision technology has potential for a new breed of entertainment notebooks. Although wearing the required glasses is still geeky, I like the immersive gaming experience, and 3D Blu-ray playback is up next.
Garmin and TomTom
What do you do when the bread and butter of your business is suddenly given away for free by Google? You watch your stocks plummet. When Android 2.0 launched alongside the Motorola Droid, we learned that Google Maps Navigation (Beta) would include free spoken turn-by-turn directions, which for many was the final nail in the coffin for standalone GPS navigators. TomTom is trying to remain competitive with its (pricey) iPhone app and car kit, while Garmin finally got its underwhelming Nuvifone G60 smart phone out the door. At the moment, both GPS giants look a bit lost.
This week Nokia announced that it would be closing its flagship stores in Chicago and New York, saying that “over 90 percent of consumer purchases are made through carriers” in North America. Um, I could have told Nokia that before the stores launched. The N97 flagship device failed to capture the attention of carriers or mainstream consumers in the U.S., and the company’s smart phone market share continues to slide. The N900 looks like yet another high-priced niche play. Nokia promises an interface overhaul for its Symbian OS next year, and the Booklet 3G was a decent first crack at the netbook market—at least in terms of its design–but 2009 was a year to forget for this wireless company..
It’s not a good sign when AT&T rolls out an iPhone app to help customers report where the network fails. The good news: the nation’s No. 2 carrier knows there’s a problem. In fact, just this week AT&T Mobility president and CEO, Ralph de la Vega, acknowledged that service in Manhattan and San Francisco has been below the company’s standards. The solution? Encourage customers to use less wireless data as its network struggles to keep up with demand. Some say that encouragement may come in the form of metered pricing for the heaviest users, which may frustrate customers even more. Perhaps the end of AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity agreement, rumored for 2010, could be the best thing for the carrier and its subscribers.
The perennial processor underdog, AMD recently filled its coffers with a hefty $1.3 billion payment from Intel as part of a legal settlement between the two companies. And I hope the company puts that money to good use, because one high-ranking notebook executive recently told me that AMD is two years behind Intel’s technology. AMD continues to deliver chips that provide good performance at affordable prices, but notebooks equipped with this CPU don’t offer nearly as much battery life as Intel-powered notebooks. AMD also missed the netbook boat, and its Athlon Neo platform for ultraportables has, thus far, fallen flat. The company needs to provide some healthy competition for Intel’s next-gen Core and Atom processors.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.