10 Tech Wins of 2011

Among the high-profile flops, some companies managed to find success this year.

Here are 2011's Biggest Tech Winners

Looking back on this year's most anticipated tech products, disappointment is a common theme. Android tablets were sales duds. HP, the world's biggest PC maker, temporarily had the bad idea to stop making PCs. The Nintendo 3DS was such a failure at launch that Nintendo had to slash prices. And for months, we've heard talk of a bubble in Silicon Valley, fueled by well-funded failures such as Color. But among the flops, some companies managed to find success this year.

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IBM's Watson

The very definition of a winner, IBM's Watson supercomputer mopped the floor with human Jeopardy phenoms Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day challenge. Watson consists of 2800 processor cores across ten server racks, stored in their own room cooled by a pair of large refrigeration units, all geared to answer Alex Trebek's questions faster than the human brain can. Imagine the day when all of that knowledge will be available on your phone.

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Apple's Siri

Apple's iPhone 4S is a mostly evolutionary product with the requisite improvements, including a faster processor and a better camera. But Apple also planted the seeds of revolution with Siri, a virtual assistant that speaks and understands voice commands. Although Android and Windows Phone tread this territory as well, Siri goes a step further by interpreting natural language instead of relying on rigid instructions. It's the closest we've come to having an AI in our pockets.

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Amazon's Kindle Fire

Simply by generating healthy preorders, Amazon's Kindle Fire has burned brighter than any other iPad alternative. The Fire's $199 price tag, combined with its abundant content and Android apps, makes it an enticing tablet for people who don't have $500 or more to spare on tech toys.

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Xbox 360 and Kinect

Microsoft's Kinect, a camera for the Xbox 360 game console that detects 3D motion, launched in fall 2010. However, in 2011 the Kinect hit 10 million sales, making it the fastest-selling electronics device, according to Guinness. Excitement about the Kinect has helped the Xbox 360 outsell its competition in North America every month so far this year, according to The NPD Group.

Samsung Galaxy Phones

Apple isn't the only company that can create hit smartphones. Recent studies from Strategy Analytics and IDC show Samsung beating Apple in smartphones shipped (not sold, but impressive nonetheless). Samsung's flagship handset, the Galaxy S II, sports an ultrathin design and a silky-smooth take on Google's Android software, making it one of the year's best phones.

Apple's iPad 2

With the thinner, lighter, and faster iPad 2, Apple sent its competitors into panic mode, since most of them were still working on their first-generation tablets modeled after the original iPad. While those rivals floundered, Apple just kept proving that tablets are not a fad, racking up 40 million iPad sales as of October 2011.

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In an age where smartphones threaten the viability of stand-alone digital cameras, Lytro has sparked interest by promising to revolutionize photography. The so-called light-field camera is a long, rectangular device that can refocus an image even after you take the picture, so you can snap photos and worry about the finer details later. Although Lytro's camera won't be available until next year, it deserves praise now for drumming up excitement in an often nonbuzzworthy category of consumer technology.

Microsoft's Windows Phone

Time will tell whether Windows Phone can catch up with Android and the iPhone, but at least Microsoft is making all the right moves. After launching incomplete software in 2010, Microsoft spent the year adding all the prerequisites of a modern mobile OS, including copy-and-paste functionality, third-party multitasking, HTML 5, support and front-facing camera support. The company also enlisted Nokia to build high-end handsets, and strong-armed Android phone makers into licensing agreements that may persuade them to construct more Windows Phones. This was the turnaround Microsoft desperately needed.

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At last, Google has launched a social network that isn't a catastrophic failure. In just four months, Google+ has acquired more than 40 million users, and has become the toast of techies such as Robert Scoble. Although critics have noticed a recent drop in activity, Google+ at least has the makings of a true Facebook competitor, which is more than you can say for Buzz, Jaiku, Orkut, and Wave.

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Google Chrome

Google's Chrome browser is likely to overtake Mozilla's Firefox in December, according to browser-share data from StatCounter, and it has climbed to more than 25 percent of the market already. Maybe it's those sentimental ads that have piqued users' interest, or perhaps it's the addition of innovative features such as instant pages or a Web app store. Either way, Chrome will become Internet Explorer's biggest threat in 2012.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.