5 Big ways the tech world changed in 2011

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In many ways, 2011 was the year when previously overhyped technologies suddenly became mainstream (you may not have noticed because you were too busy checking BBM). Gadgets that had been at the top of everyone’s “Trends” lists for the past two or three years finally started making it onto people’s Christmas lists, too. The social changes promised by the rise of “SoLoMo” (social-local-mobile) became felt when they supported enormous social upheaval during the Arab Spring. Here are five of the many ways in which technology changed the world in 2011.

1. The smartphone became mainstream
Remember it seemed like the world was ending when the BlackBerry network went down a few months ago? That’s because BlackBerrys are the new Nokias — everyone has them.
Around 30% of the world now owns a smartphone. Smartphones are no longer just for geeks and businessmen — they’ve become indispensable digital companions for anyone who can afford them (and that barrier is being lowered all the time).

It’s impossible to measure the social change facilitated by this increase in smartphones, since our phones affect so many aspects of our lives because they are always with us. Shifts can be felt in how the web is becoming more local (one in three mobile searches on Google display local intent), in explorations into augmented reality (look at apps like Layar and Google Goggles, as well as campaigns like the Airwalk Invisible Pop-up Store) and in mobile money (Google Wallet is the major app to watch in 2012).

If 2011 has been the year of the smartphone, then 2012 will be the year when our app choices explode. Expect to see more local-centric apps and more apps that threaten traditional businesses (like Amazon’s cheeky Price Check app which represents a direct challenge to brick-and-mortar stores).

2. Facebook and Twitter continued to take over
2011 was the year when it became impossible for business executives to argue that social media was a fad for teenagers and was not going to have a long-term effect on the web, or business, or media.

Over the past year, the two powerhouse social networks, Facebook and Twitter, both proved that they’re around to stay.

Facebook’s growth rates may be starting to slow internationally, but the service has still to hit its peak in some emerging markets, like South Africa. Facebook only recently overtook MXit as the most used social network in that country. Around the world, Facebook has become the first social network to really dominate amongst regular people of all ages and most nationalities. Having reached that tipping point, it’s hard to imagine the service’s popularity waning any time soon.

Twitter, too, has finally matured from a fast-growing upstart into a powerful player in mainstream web culture. It’s also no surprise that the fastest growing language over the past 12 months (by 2000%) was Arabic.

3.The social web started fulfilling its promise
Perhaps even more interesting than the rise of individual social networks in 2011 has been the consolidation of the social layer over the entire web. There are very few prominent news sites left that lack social media sharing buttons, and it became a given that we could link up our social media accounts to other web apps and services. Of course, the most interesting experiment in this regard was the launch of Google+, which, with its unprecedented integration into search, YouTube and RSS readers is already looking to herald in an increasingly important change in our mindset — a move from social networks to social media.

The more social web has started showing us what’s possible when it comes to content curation. Some of the best apps that rose to prominence in 2011 have been services like Flipboard and Pintrist, and even the Amazon App Store, which are teaching us new, better ways to discover content. This is a trend we will continue to see manifest in 2012.

4. Online video got serious
Online video experienced some major changes in 2011. YouTube has exploded: the rate of YouTube’s growth over the past year has been estimated at about 175%, supported by greater speed (thanks to all the new international cables) and more affordable data costs (helped along by BlackBerry and the data price wars).

The growth has not just meant even more lolcats and Justin Bieber videos than ever before, either. We’re seeing a significant growth in the amount of informational and instructional content on YouTube, not to mention companies like Disney creating original content for YouTube.

All of this is probably a good indication that we’re not too far off from significant long-form video streaming to the TV (not to mention music streaming). It can only be a matter of time.

5. Tablets heralded in the era of touch and voice
As this one-year-old showed us, the years of mouse and keyboard input are coming to an end, as the world has started interacting with technology through more human methods: touch and voice. Tablets and smartphones (especially something like iPhone’s “Siri”), as well as gaming input devices like the Xbox Kinect, have started conditioning us to control our gadgets in new ways.

This has had profound impact on a number of things: more regular users are starting to view their gadgets as entertainment devices, not just work tools, which means changes to magazine and book consumption, a massive increase in casual gaming and “second-screen” activities whilst watching TV. It’s also meant yet another nail in the coffin of the traditional work desktop, which means greater mobility for employees (can I get a “woop woop”?).

On a broader social level, a change to new types of input is great news for developing countries (and people living with disabilities), because the barrier to usage is lower. Expect to see more $60 tablet projects replacing $100 laptop projects around the world.

2011. What a year.

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