What Happened in 2010–and Didn’t

Somehow I persuaded myself a year ago to offer up predictions for what would happen in 2010–and what wouldn’t happen. Now it’s time to take my medicine and see how I fared.

What I said would happen:

* Merger mania will accelerate in technology, especially acquisitions of smaller firms. OK, so it was a bit of a gimme, but I got that right. Google alone bought more than two dozen.

* Branding will start to become more apparent in Internet advertising, with Google leading the way in display. I guess it became somewhat more prominent a push, but I’d say I was a year too early on this.

* Google’s software efforts will finally establish it as more than a search company, making it apparent what this pony’s second trick is. Android certainly established itself, the Chrome browser made significant gains, and Google Apps got some big new customers. Chrome OS was late, though delivered through an alpha laptop, and remains unproven, and so does Google TV. Overall, it’s an impressive showing, if not enough to identify software as its next trick.

* Yahoo will surprise on the upside, thanks in part to a pickup in brand spending. Wrong! Well, the latter happened, but not enough to buoy a sinking Yahoo. It laid off 4% of its staff and jettisoned once-promising operations. Well, there’s always 2011–and maybe that’s all there will be if CEO Carol Bartz can’t demonstrate that she can finally turn things around.

* Mobile applications will start to take off for the masses. Two words: Angry Birds.

* Twitter’s main business model will become more apparent, but won’t knock everyone’s socks off. That’s just about right.

* Facebook will keep growing, providing perhaps the first test of whether social media is a blockbuster business after all. No doubt about that, even if it’s not yet certain how profitable the company will be.

What I said wouldn’t happen:

* Tablets won’t be the next big thing in client computing. As popular as Apple’s iPad was, tablets didn’t take the world by storm in 2010. But I don’t doubt they’ll be much bigger in 2011.

* There won’t be as many tech IPOs as venture capitalists and startups are hoping. And no, there weren’t, even if 45 did go public, up from 16 in 2009. And none of them were the big names such as Twitter or Facebook that some had hoped for.

* Real-time won’t be a business. When’s the last time you heard that buzzword? Maybe when real-time search engine OneRiot did a layoff?

* Online advertisers won’t escape a privacy backlash. And they sure didn’t. More trouble is coming in 2011, too.

* Google won’t get hit with a major antitrust lawsuit that so many have been predicting for years. True, and it doesn’t look any more likely today.

So actually, I did pretty well, even if you could argue that some of those weren’t exactly stretches. Next up, predictions for 2011, and another opportunity to look like an idiot.

A Glimpse Into the Future of Television

If there’s one thing that struck me while I was researching an article on the future of television for Technology Review, it was all the fake living rooms. Google has one. So does Roku. So do LogitechSezmi, and Intel (which I believe has several in different states). I’m sure I missed a dozen more. It’s a sign of how important television, the star of living rooms real and faux, is to tech companies as they look to tap into the technology and media riches of the last great mass medium.

They’re all trying to figure out how to meld the medium they know–the Internet–with the one they hope to revolutionize: television. Yet with little native knowledge of television, Silicon Valley firms must troop consumer after consumer into these cozy little corners of their corporations and observe how people watch television and how they respond to their many efforts to bring the Web to the screen watched on average five hours a day. Even now, these companies are still struggling. Google, for instance, just told several consumer electronics manufacturers to hold off on planned launches of Google TV products at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January.

At the same time, the television industry has a lot to learn, too. Like the music industry, they’re in many cases fighting to keep too many people from watching television entertainment online, because that could damage their lucrative business models. But while they may have more leverage against the Internet hordes than the music industry had, thanks to both those business models and the durability of the TV experience for viewers, they don’t know any more about the Internet than the tech companies know about TV. Ultimately they will need to give viewers more flexible ways to view their content, or someone else will.

At this point, honestly, it’s tough to know how this volatile mix of TV and Net will shake out. I know, because I asked a whole lot of experts in both, and it was kind of amazing how uncertain nearly all of them are about what will happen even a couple of years from now. I hope to have provided some insight into how things could play out, but the uncertainty about what’s coming next in television is what I find most interesting: Whatever comes of this clash of two great mediums is going to surprise us all.

Why Google TV Wasn’t a Hit–and Why It’s Too Early to Write It Off

After a spate of mostly poor-to-middling reviews, Google TV products due out at the important Consumer Electronics Show in early January have been delayed, according to the New York Times. Although Samsung and Vizio apparently will show new Google TV products–in Vizio’s case, privately–Toshiba, Sharp, and LG Electronics apparently have delayed plans to introduce Google TV products after the search giant asked them to hold off. To date, only Sony, with a line of Google TVs and Blu-ray player, and Logitech, with an add-on Google TV settop box, have had products with the software embedded in it. Google TV lets people reach Web sites on their TVs, even while regular TV is playing.

But while some reviews have praised Google TV’s ambition, most have said it falls too far short of what TV viewers want in their living rooms. And they’re mostly right today. The Logitech box, called the Revue, comes with a PC keyboard that some people may find awkward to use on the couch, and the user interface isn’t as clean as it should be. Worse, TV broadcasters, fearful that too many people might prefer to watch episodes on demand on their Websites instead of on their TVs where they’re exposed to much more lucrative advertising, have blocked Google TV users from viewing most of their Web videos. Add the relatively steep price for Google TV products, which starts at $300 for the Revue, and it’s tough to see how these products would fly off the retail shelves.

For all that, it’s way too early to count Google TV as another of Google’s many failed product experiments. Here’s why:

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Google Chrome OS Notebook: So Far, So OK

Wow, that was fast. Just two days after Google introduced its Chrome OS operating system, the reference-design Chrome OS notebook that Google is sending out to journalists, developers, and select consumers showed up on my doorstep. I’m going to spare you a full unboxing and review, partly because Techmeme is full of people who have already done this and partly because a proper review means using it for at least a few days for a large variety of tasks.

That said, so far I weigh in in the middle of the reviews, which range from Danny Sullivan’s fairly negative take to more positive previews such as Engadget’s. Bottom line, it’s fast–both in bootup and Web browsing–and the nondescript hardware feels pretty solid. But there are many glitches and omissions that will make it tough to fulfill the promise I made when I applied to beta-test it–to use it as my main computer for awhile.

What I like:

* It’s fast, like I said. After a setup that took only a couple minutes, including a software update, the notebook started up in seconds. And the Web browsing on my reasonably good wireless network was, if not as fast as my MacBook Pro on Ethernet, surprisingly close.

* It’s simple, starting with the keyboard, which dispenses with the function keys that always seem like more hassle than they’re worth. Like Google said, it’s nothing but the Web. Shutdown? Close the lid.

* The hardware feels solid, especially the keyboard, whose keys have a nice feel and are spaced like my MacBook keys. Although it feels heavier than you’d expect from the fairly small size, it’s thin and doesn’t feel as clunky as even my little Netbook.

* I haven’t fully tested the battery, but judging from how little it has run down in a couple of hours, it looks like it will last an eight-hour day, as promised.

What I don’t like:

* The cursor sometimes jumps around for no apparent reason. The trackpad, while better than others I’ve tried on notebooks, doesn’t come close to matching the Macbook’s smooth multitouch interface. And right-clicking, which involves two fingers on the trackpad, is maddeningly inconsistent.

* Flash doesn’t work so great, as even Adobe has admitted, though a fix is promised. That makes YouTube and most video for that matter hit-and-miss. Also, Netflix streaming isn’t supported–that’s going to be a biggie unless an app or browser support is added quickly.

* This is the flipside of a computer that stores everything in the cloud so it never (so we can hope) gets lost, but there’s no method of storing local files, if you’re used to doing that or just want insurance against the still-common problem of not being able to get a connection. Google promises offline support for Google Apps but it’s not here yet.

* There’s only one USB port, and it doesn’t seem to recognize very much so far, including my camera and the card in it. This is another biggie–you need easy ways to get photos into the computer that don’t involve playing hot potato with online services.

But hey, it worked well enough for me to write this post on it. I’ll be trying the Cr-48, as Google cutely calls the notebook, over coming weeks and days and will report back on my experience periodically. It’s far too soon to tell whether Chrome OS represents the sea change in computing that Google clearly hopes it will–and that folks such as Google CEO Eric Schmidt have been saying is coming for almost a couple of decades. But the interesting thing is we’ll soon find out.

LIVE at Google’s Chrome OS Launch: “Nothing But the Web”

When Google announced plans for its own operating system, Chrome OS, in July 2009, many observers thought the company had gone a little Microsoft-crazy. Not so, in my opinion. But for whatever reason, the Web-based operating system–described by Google as essentially the Chrome Web browser with a bunch of software drivers needed to run many kinds of hardware–has been late in arriving. This morning in San Francisco, the search giant is expected to announce more details of the highly anticipated software–in particular, the launch of Chrome OS and the opening of a Web app store, plus perhaps the introduction of a Netbook with the OS on it. I’ll be liveblogging the highlights. There’s a bunch of videos queued up on Google’s YouTube channel that I assume will be viewable once the event begins at 10:30 a.m. Pacific. You can view the livestream of the event there too, and Google’s blog post on the event is now up.

And we’re underway, first with Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice president of product management. What’s coming: an update on Chrome (the browser), Chrome Web store, and of course Chrome OS. We’ve been working to make a lot of progress with the open source community.

Google VP Sundar Pichai at Chrome OS launch

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Offermatic Takes On Groupon With Automated Deals

Like a lot of people, I’ve been taken a little aback by the incredible success of Groupon, the deal-a-day site that Google recently offered $6 billion to buy–only to be rejected last week, for pete’s sake. Estimates of annual sales, all thanks to the 50% cut it takes from deals offered daily by local merchants around the U.S., range from $500 million to an almost unbelievable $2 billion (and indeed that is believable only if it’s gross revenues, of which Groupon gets half or less).

For all that, no small number of people have questioned various aspects of Groupon’s business, from wondering if it’s a fad to asking whether merchants ultimately will find the deals profitable enough to continue. A new deal service launching today from Sunnyvale-based startup Offermatic provides some potential answers to those limitations–while raising some questions of its own.

I can’t really offer a better description of Offermatic than the one Mike Arrington at TechCrunch provided last May, when Offermatic began beta testing: It’s the freak love child of Mint (the online finance tracking service now owned by Intuit), Blippy (a service where you post your purchases to the world), and Groupon. So for example, if you spend $75 at Home Depot one month, you might get a $20-off coupon from Lowe’s–deposited automatically in your credit-card account. More details from Offermatic: Continue reading

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