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Top tech stories of 2010

I hope everybody had a nice and restful Christmas (even those people who don’t celebrate it). I know I did. It was a welcome break from the madness of the past few months.

Speaking of which, were I still working at the CBC, I’d likely have my hands full right now putting together my top story list of 2010, just like everyone else in the media. I don’t like to feel left out, so I thought I’d compile my own list and present it here. So, with no further ado, here are what I considered to be the 10 most important technology-related stories of the past year.

10. Privacy, privacy, privacy

It seems like every web business got nailed for some sort of privacy violation this year, especially here in Canada where we have a bulldog for a privacy watchdog. Whether it was Facebook and the convoluted system it has for sharing people’s information, or Google accidentally gathering such data with its Street View cars, internet companies really skirted the line of what is considered public and private in 2010. Personally, this isn’t an issue I really cared about that much because I’ve long believed that if you put a piece of information on the internet, you should expect it to be public – and permanent. My feeling is that society’s general view of privacy is changing to reflect this reality and we’ll probably stop caring so much about websites are doing and more about what we’re actually giving them. But there’ll be more on that in my 2011 predictions, coming soon.

9. Antennagate

The media loves to build things up and tear them down, and Apple got a good taste of it this year when it released the iPhone 4 in June. While the device formerly known as the “Jesus Phone” could previously do no wrong, suddenly it was having connection problems thanks to a redesigned antenna. Again, it’s another situation that I found dramatically overblown, but it did ultimately help open the door for competing smartphones – particuarly Android – which is probably a good thing.

8. Video games escape the ghetto

Games have typically been the domain of teen and adult males, but this year they really exploded to a much larger audience. The move actually started in earnest four years ago with the release of the Nintendo Wii, which brought many women and young children into the equation, but 2010 saw both Microsoft and Sony get into the action with the Kinect and Move motion systems, respectively. The duo have only been out a short time but it’s clear the video game market is much bigger than those males, and all the big hardware makers are now going after them. Social games also exploded, with Facebook recently saying that nearly half of its 500 million members log on to the site specifically to play games such as Farmville. Video games have never been bigger and there’s no end in sight to their growth.

7. 3D TV flops – or does it?

Recent reports suggest 3D TV, launched with great fanfare at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, have been a big flop, with sales in the low single percentages. That may be true, and the reasons for it are many: people have either recently bought new HD TVs, there’s little 3D content available for them, and people hate wearing the glasses. But, two things are happening: glasses-free technology is improving and all of it is getting cheaper every day. Like I said in January, 3D is likely to soon become a standard feature of all TVs – like the “gaming mode” they all currently have – and will not incur any premium. The media has a habit of pronouncing many technologies dead, but the reality is they often seep into everyday life without our even noticing. Such will be the case with 3D.

6. Ebooks (and tablets) explode

I wrote a little while back about how ebooks were growing exponentially and 2010 was really the year things caught fire. I can’t wait to see what the final numbers will be for the year – I wouldn’t be surprised if ebooks account for as much as 25% of all books sold. The iPad is fuelling at least part of that, and things are really going to get crazy next year once you’ve got a flood of competitors for the device. I’m told there will be up to 80 new tablet computers introduced at CES next week. Ebooks are a key app for these tablets, so sales of them are going to skyrocket even faster next year.

5. Google, Verizon and net neutrality

Google drew a lot of heat in the summer for becoming a “surrender monkey” on net neutrality by proposing a set of rules in conjunction with telecom company Verizon. Those rules were pretty much adopted to the letter by U.S. regulators last week, and it’s certain we haven’t heard the last of it as the proposal must now go through government, where Republicans have vowed to kill it. What was most noteworthy about U.S. efforts to protect free speech and innovation on the innovation is how bogged down and watered down they became once the lobbyists were set loose.

4. Broadband becomes a right

On a related note, a few countries – notably Finland – enshrined access to high-speed internet as a legal right for their citizens while other countries such as Australia moved to build their own publicly-owned access networks. The past year saw some pretty clear ideological lines drawn between those that believe in government having the best interests of the country at heart, and those that think businesses do. As far as broadband and innovation goes, we’ll see in a few years who turns out to be right (I suspect it’ll be the former).

3. The fight for copyright

After a long consultation process across the country, the Canadian government in the summer introduced Bill C-32, the copyright modernization act. Pretty much nobody was happy with it. Entertainment industry lobbyists didn’t like that the bill created a lot of rights for Canadians to copy material and artists didn’t like that there were no new compensation schemes suggested. What really riled most every-day people, though, was a clause that prevents the picking of digital locks placed on devices and content. That means if a record label decides it doesn’t want you to copy your CD onto your iPod, tough noogies. Internationally, the U.S. pushed ahead on getting consensus on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which has been characterized as just as restrictive as C-32. One possibility under ACTA is that border guards would be able to search your iPod for pirated music. Yikes. Obviously, both efforts were hugely controversial in 2010. It’ll be interesting to see how they play out in 2011. C-32, at least, has the possibility of dying if an election is called in Canada.

2. Facebook as a social phenomenon

Okay, personally, I still think Facebook will ultimately prove to be fad. Yes, the website makes lots of money and has tons of users, but I just don’t see the real value proposition. Maybe I’m just not among the target users. Regardless, I also can’t remember movies made about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, much less good ones that will likely garner a few Oscar nominations. While watching The Social Network, one thought kept recurring to me: I can’t believe that a website (and web coding) is the central focus of a movie. Regardless of anything else Facebook is or isn’t, it has propelled technology to the forefront of pop culture like few other things have, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment. More amazing is that people actually went in droves to see a movie that was mostly about coding and litigation.

1. Cell Wars: A New (Wireless) Hope

Like several hundred thousand Canadians, I almost wept when I kissed my old cellphone provider (Rogers-owned Fido) goodbye and said hello to my new one (Mobilicity). I officially shaved $12 off my bill, but more importantly I added a whole ton of value with unlimited data, texting and calling – including North American long distance. Mobilicity is just one of several new independent wireless carriers that have sprung up over the past year – with Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Videotron being the others. In their short existence, they have done wonders in breaking the stranglehold the big three – Bell, Rogers and Telus – have had on Canadians and brought prices down significantly to where they’re almost comparable to what users enjoy in much of the rest of the world. Even the big guys have flinched and are starting to lower their prices or change their terms, so the arrival of real competition is finally having an effect. I want to end my top-10 list on a good note, but I do have to bring up the long-smouldering issue of foreign ownership restrictions, which was one of the biggest bad-news stories of 2010. With the government continuing to waffle on lifting these onerous restrictions, there’s already talk that some of the new entrants – particularly Public Mobile – are in financial trouble. If the ownership rules don’t change quickly, one or more of those new carriers surely won’t be around this time next year.

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