December 31, 2009

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Reluctantly looking back
Boredom and failure reign in 2009
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

What a dull year.

Oh, sure, we got another iteration of the iPhone; we got yet another Windows; and yeah, social media site Twitter became our main information source on a major international news story, the election and subsequent unrest in Iran. But really, where was the innovation? The astounding new products? The drastic price reductions? Maybe I’m just jaded, or maybe I didn’t notice because I took four months off, but nothing really blew my socks off this year.

Last January, you read predictions for 2009 in this very space. Below, how things turned out.

• Less plastic packaging you can’t open: Led by Amazon.com, a consortium of manufacturers started the Frustration-Free Packaging initiative. They started with 19 products and have expanded to more than 350 items in a number of categories, from toys and electronics to coffee, tea and personal care. They even started their own line of cables and recording media called AmazonBasics.

The catch? In some cases there’s a choice between regular plastic clamshell packaging and cardboard Frustration-Free Packaging, and the choice isn’t free. $5 extra for fancy $80 webcam? Worth it. A $17 memory card increasing to $24? Totally not. Still, it’s progress, and no one expected all hard plastic to be gone from store shelves in only a year.

• Still no 802.11n: I thought this prediction was a gimme, as I was working directly from a schedule put out by the standards body, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Who knew they would beat their estimate by five months and approve the final standard in September? Faster wireless networking, with the full backing of the IEEE, is now yours, and most of those draft-N products already on the market work just fine with it. Me = fail.

• Sub-$100 Blu-ray player: They’re not easy to find now, but brand new Blu-ray players were available at Best Buy on Black Friday for $99.99. As of this writing, an LG player at Newegg.com is $99.99 with free shipping, and there’s a Magnavox at Wal-Mart for $98. Refurbished ones are routinely at that price point. Notch one up for Techstrodamus.

• 3D screens without glasses: Please recall that I didn’t say these would be cheap. Philips now offers a 42-inch, 1080p HD display using autostereoscopic technology, and a couple totally not shady dealers offer it starting around $8,000. It uses the 2D-plus-Depth format, which places a grayscale depth map alongside the image, along with Declipse, which adds a second layer of real image and grayscale image behind the first one to give you a slightly different picture when you move your head around.

Now we just need everyone to unify behind this exact format and produce content for it rather than developing competing formats. And that’s never, ever a problem in this industry.

• Laptops with secondary touchscreens: Okay, this one was totally a gimme, since Fujitsu was already shipping a laptop with a 4” touchscreen configured as a control panel. Only, they’re not really selling it anymore. You can still get it, the LifeBook N7010, at Provantage.com, but don’t look for it at Fujitsu’s site. At $1,400 for average specs other than the extra touchscreen, it just doesn’t make sense from a value standpoint, so the idea didn’t catch on with anyone else either.

Especially when the economy stinks and a $300 netbook is more fun.