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Looking back at 2008 in tech

by Larry Magid

No earth-shattering new technologies emerged in 2008, but it was an eventful year.

It was a year of definition for high-def TV, because Toshiba in February dropped its support for its HD DVD standard, allowing the industry to unite behind Blu-ray.

Standard wars such as the two-year battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray stall technology adoption. Even though it’s now safe to buy Blu-ray, sales are still tepid and will probably remain so until the economy picks up and Blu-ray player prices fall to below $150. I can safely predict a drop in Blu-ray drive prices in 2009 but have no idea when the economy will pick up.

It was an interesting year for smart-phones. Apple, which introduced the iPhone in 2007, hit a home run with its 2008 model, the iPhone 3G. At the same time, Apple opened its iPhone application store with thousands of free and modestly priced programs for the new and old iPhone and Apple’s iPod Touch. These applications are proving popular with iPhone users and signal the transformation of smart-phones into third-party-application-friendly computing platforms.

Apple said it sold 6.9 million iPhones from June to September. During that quarter, according to Chief Executive Steve Jobs, Apple outsold Research In Motion’s popular BlackBerry phone. But RIM isn’t conceding. In addition to maintaining its strategy to dominate the corporate and government market, RIM took major strides into consumer territory in 2008 with the release of the Curve, Bold and Storm models, all of which have cameras, digital media players and — my favorite — a jack that lets you use any standard off-the-shelf headphones.

Google also entered the smart-phone market in 2008 with the release of the T-Mobile G1, the first phone powered by Google’s open-source Android operating system. The G1 met with mixed reviews, but Google is working with other carriers and phone manufacturers and will be releasing several new models next year. The key to Android is the open application development platform which — if the hardware sells well — should spawn a vibrant software market for the device.

PCs don’t generate all that much excitement these days, but 2008 saw the growth of a new trend that’s picking up steam. Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Lenovo, Asus, Dell and others have introduced what are being called netbooks, which are basically small and inexpensive laptop computers that typically start at under $400. Some run Windows XP or even Windows Vista but others come with a version of the Linux operating system. Using Linux lowers the cost because the manufacturer doesn’t have to pay Microsoft a royalty and it improves performance because it’s typically faster and less resource-hungry than Windows.

Probably because of netbooks, the third quarter of 2008 was the first time that notebook PCs outsold desktops on a quarterly basis, according to research firm iSuppli. The report singles out Acer, whose unit market share grew by 45 percent, largely because of its leadership in the netbook category.

Apple made a little bit of laptop news in 2008 with the introduction of its ultrathin MacBook Air in January. The MacBook Air isn’t the first PC with a solid state hard drive but it is the thinnest PC currently on the market.

On the Web side of the equation, 2008 was a bad year for Yahoo, which saw its share price fall by about 50 percent from December 2007 to December 2008. In February, the company turned down a $31-a-share buyout offer from Microsoft. Yahoo shares closed at $12.32 Wednesday.

Facebook seems to have had a pretty good 2008. Earlier this month, the privately held company announced that it had more than 140 million active users with more than half its users “outside of college” where Facebook got its start. In June, ComScore reported that Facebook pulled ahead of MySpace in terms of worldwide users.

And, of course, one can’t comment on 2008 and tech without noting that the first tech-savvy president was elected this year. Technology played a major role in President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign and promises to play an even bigger role in his administration, which means there will be lots of fodder for those of us who cover tech and care about politics.