2011: The Year In Tech

Okay, last workday of the year. It’s nostalgia time. Let’s take a quick glance in the rearview mirror at the year in Tech, before we speed forward again in 2012. There were defining moments, epic battles, new product introductions, and major corporate screw-ups. Mobile and social drove many of the changes in tech, and we’ve certainly gone through our own major transition here at TechCrunch (but I’ll save that for another post). Below is our list of 11 events in tech that made 2011 memorable.

1. End Of An Era: Steve Jobs Passes Away
The defining moment of 2011 which transcended tech was the passing of Steve Jobs. It shook the world not because it was unexpected, but because Jobs was at the height of his creative arc and his work was far from finished. He had pulled the tech industry into the post-PC era with the iPhone and iPad leading the charge, and the rest of the industry following. But Jobs always liked to surprise people with “one more thing,” and he set up Apple to keep creating those things far into the future. It is telling that his last public appearance was in front of the Cupertino City Council outlining his plans for a futuristic new Apple headquarters. (Other tech luminaries no longer with us include Dennis Ritchie, Bob Galvin, and Ken Olsen).

2. Google Goes Social
After many previous half-hearted attempts to take on Facebook, Google finally got serious about social in 2011 with the launch of Google+. Larry Page, who took over as CEO this year from Eric Schmidt, put it front and center by weaving it into Google’s other products and pushing it to an estimated 65 million people. With its Circles and Hangouts, G+ is forging its own distinct identity. The more that social threatens search as the way people find things in the Web, the more important G+ will become to Google.

3. The Kindle Lights A Fire
Amazon entered the tablet race this year with the Kindle Fire, a media tablet based on Android that serves as a window into all the digital media Amazon is trying to sell us—books, movies, music, apps. The $200 Kindle Fire is the best-selling Android tablet out there. Amazon sold more than 4 million total Kindles over the holidays (including the E-Ink versions). Amazon just wants to get as many Kindle Fires into people’s hands as possible so that it can deliver digital books, movies, and apps right into our hands.

4. The Year Of The Pivot
The one thing startup founders learn very quickly is that failure is okay as long as they learn from it. With the cost to create a product lower than ever before, lean startups can afford to try again. This is known as the “pivot,” an over-used term which became a survival strategy for some, even fat startups (see, Color). The two most successful pivots which come to mind are Turntable.fm (formerly Sticky Bits) and Fab.com (which went from gay social network to design-oriented e-commerce site).

5. Netflix Screws Up
This was a tough year for Netflix. Its stock went from $300 to $70 as it tried to speed its transition from a DVD rentals business to streaming online video. Along the way, it introduced price hikes to some of its customers and tried to split off its DVD-by-mail business before backing off and apologizing to customers. (Although, the price hikes remained). Viewers are spending more time watching Netflix movies streamed over the Internet, but the company still has a lot of work to do to repair its once-shiny brand image.

6. Tech IPOs Come Back (Sort Of)
After several years of almost no activity, 2011 was a big year for tech IPOs. We had LinkedIn, Pandora, Groupon, Yandex, and Zynga. And don’t forget about Chinese Internet IPOs like Tudou and Renren. Most of these didn’t perform that well for public investors after initial pops, and even some private investors got burned (Zynga priced below its last private round). Now all eyes are on Facebook, which is planning to IPO in 2012.

7. The Private Billion-Dollar Club Gets Bigger
One reason tech IPOs aren’t performing so well is that much of growth in value is now captured before the IPO by private investors. Tech companies are pushing off going public further and further into the future, and raising huge rounds of funding from the same types of growth investors—DST, T-Rowe Price, Fidelity—who a dozen years ago would have waited for an IPO. As a result, many private tech companies are raising money at $1 billion valuations. We saw this trend take off in 2011 with Airbnb, Dropbox, Gilt Groupe, Square, and Spotify. And it’s not limited just to the U.S.

8. Google Buys Motorola, Microsoft Buys Skype, And Other Big Deals
2011 wasn’t just a big year for IPOs, it was also a big year for M&A. While the biggest tech deal of the year, AT&T’s proposed $39 billion merger with T-Mobile, was squashed by the government on antitrust grounds, some of the biggest tech deals of the last decade did go through. Google bought Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, Microsoft called in Skype for $8.5 billion, and eBay acquired GSICommerce for $2.4 billion. Other notable large deals included HP-Autonomy ($10.2 billion), RightNow-Oracle $1.5 billion), PopCap-Electronic Arts ($1.3 billion), ITA Software-Google ($700 million), Anobit Technologies-Apple ($450 million), Admeld-Google ($400 million), Efficient Frontier-Adobe ($400 million), Radian6-Salesforce ($326 million), Huffington Post-AOL ($315 million), and Kobo-Rakuten ($315 million).

9. The Patent Wars Get Ugly
The patent system is broken. Patents are increasingly used to block innovation in courtrooms rather than create innovations in the marketplace, and we saw this problem reach epic proportions in 2011. Patent trolls continued to extort tech companies large and small. But the patent wars spilled over to the major industry players themselves as everyone pointed their patent arsenals at Android. In July, Google failed to win a bid for more than 6,000 of Nortel’s patents, which went to an anti-Google consortium for $4.5 billion. Google responded by buying patent-rich Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Microsoft started demanding patent licensing fees from Android handset manufacturers, which led to a very public tussle with Google which never seemed to end. And Apple did its part by continuing to sue Android manufacturers, including HTC and Samsung, for patent infringement. It’s a mess.

10. Android And Apple Win The Mobile Internet
All of this fighting is for a very high stakes game—the future of computing, which is mobile. Apple and Android emerged as the two superpowers of the mobile Internet (with 76 percent combined mobile OS share in the U.S.). RIM is in shambles. Windows Phone is still nowhere to be seen (except in TechCrunch writer Robin’s pocket). So far, tablets are all iPad, but the Kindle Fire is coming out punching to become a serious contender.

11. Social Media Fuels Social Protests
Whether it was the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, social protest movements around the world were fueled by social media like Twitter and Facebook. Protesters self-organized using Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and any other communications system available to them, which also functioned as a way to broadcast the protests around the world. These realtime technologies make it much easier to start revolutions, but they don’t make it any easier to finish them.

Image via Shutterstock/ivosar