The 10 most significant events of 2011

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The 10 most significant events of 2011
In an environment of 24 hour news channels, websites, blogs and RSS feeds, it's a truism to say there's always news.

The truth, however, is that while there's plenty happening, fewer events change the things we do and the way we view the world.

For example, during 2011, we wrote a lot about iPhone 5 rumours and tied ourselves into knots trying to understand myriad lawsuits, ranging from feuding OEMs to pure play patent trolling. Was anything of substance concluded from those cases?

So, instead, let's take a look back at 10 of the most significant events from the past 12 months; events that either highlighted a key trend or that themselves changed the industry.

10. 20 months from its $1.2 billion deal, webOS was dead open sourced (and other stories of corporate malaise)

HP entered 2011 raring to release its smartphones and tablets based on the webOS platform it had acquired via its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm.

Similarly, RIM had posted record numbers in terms of its financials, shipped devices and subscribers, and was planning for success with its first tablet device. Motorola Mobility was looking forward to life separate from the drag of its enterprise parent, again with plans for an iPad-beating tablet.

But demonstrating how quickly things can turn and bite you in the ass in the mobile world if you're not laser focused, all three ended the year in much reduced circumstances.

HP was the clearest example, even if webOS eventually proved to be a minor part of its troubles as CEO Léo Apotheker contrived to thoroughly confuse investors and analysts with his strategic plan for the company. It ended the year having dropped its smartphone business, kicking webOS into the long grass as an open source project, and very unlikely to be a force in the tablet market anytime soon.

Motorola is in a better situation, following its $12.5 billion acquisition by Google, but its medium term future remains uncertain, following the relative commercial failure of its phones and Xoom tablets.

Then there's RIM, about which we can only wait and see. It surely can't get any worse, can it?

Of course, there were plenty of other companies that bumped along the bottom, notably Dell, LG and Acer. Even Asus, which gained headlines with its Transformer line of tablets, gained little real traction.

The bottomline was that Apple, and to some degree Samsung, chewed up the competition in 2011, and unless companies get very serious, it's likely to happen again in 2012. Nokia and HTC take note.

9. Google's Rubin reveals daily Android activations up to 700,000

What does it mean that Google is activating 700,000 Android devices per day?

In abstract terms, it's useful as analysts take such imprecise figures (it's from a tweet!) and construct graphs of activations over time and discuss platform momentum and the like. But in absolute terms, it's just a massive install base number that accumulates to an even bigger number each day.

In that regard, 2011 was certainly the year of Android, with the platform overcoming iOS' lead in terms of number of devices, and more importantly, overtaking iOS in terms of daily app downloads as well.

Together, these two companies are so far ahead of the rest in terms of consumer market share that you have to wonder whether third place is actually worth bothering about.

8. Storm8's $1 million revenue day

On one level, generating $1 million in a single day through in-app purchases is just another result of the law of big numbers.

There are hundreds of millions of people playing games on their smartphones, meaning the daily revenue through the various billing mechanisms will be tens of millions of dollars.

Still, the fact that a fairly unknown company less than two years old was the first to publicly announce the landmark - even admitting it was a manipulated peak because of pricing promotion - was significant, at least in terms of highlighting the wider explosion in the freemium business in 2011.

7. Nintendo slashes 3DS price by 40 percent

While start ups such as Storm8 are ringing the sales bell, veteran game company Nintendo is getting its first taste of the bitter dregs of failure for years.

Launched in the spring, the 3DS did okay for the first month but then stalled due to a lack of software, concerns over its 3DS graphics, and wider pressure from cheap gaming on web and mobile platforms, as sort-of demonstrated by research from companies such as Flurry.

Yet, while rival Sony - for all its problems - is at least attempting to get to grips with the new world order in portable gaming, Nintendo remains steadfast against mobile gaming.

On numerous occasions during 2011, CEO Satoru Iwata took defensive positions, on one hand claiming people who play on Facebook or GREE also play more on DS, while conversely arguing that 'Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo' if it started to develop games for smartphones.

Still, with the company posted its first financial losses ever, and having to cut the price of the just launched 3DS to kickstart unit sales (plus the cost of launching the Wii U in 2012), it's likely that Nintendo will come under more pressure from investors in 2012.

6. Steve Jobs dies at 56

Depending on your point of view, the death of a billionaire who had been seriously ill for a number of years might be better viewed as a demonstration of the power of medical science rather than a shock that turned the technology business upside down.

There's little doubt, however, that the loss of the key figure behind the transformation of Apple into the most valuable and most highly regarded company in the world will have longterm significance, at least for Apple.

Perhaps, in time, it will view games in a more positive light.

5. Zynga finally IPOs

Given its tremendous growth, it was hardly a surprise when rumours started to leak in May that Facebook gaming giant Zynga was considering filing for IPO.

Given the declining world economic conditions, it was more of a surprise that it managed to complete its plan before the end of the year, even if the shares currently remain worth less than their $10 float price.

Put this way, it doesn't sound very significant, but there are good reasons why this is the case.

The first is Zynga now has to release its financial figures every three months, providing transparency of freemium gaming trends on Facebook and, more interestingly for us, mobile - onto which Zynga is aggressively expanding.

Secondly, the company has another massive pile of cash to add to its existing $1 billion-odd warchest. Given it's already attempted to buy PopCap and Rovio, we wonder who will be next?

Finally, the IPO also refinances the company's corporate investors as well as funding individual employees (dependant on option price), enabling them to go out and reinvest in new start ups or participate in large funding rounds for existing companies.

All three are excellent for the mobile games industry in 2012.

4. Smurfberries and Apple's iTunes IAP tweak

While the free-to-play model has been around for years, bringing it to devices that open personal security loopholes due to their portability - notably parents handling them to their children - was always going to cause problems.

Perhaps Capcom was unlucky it took much of the flack via its Smurfs' Village game when there were many other well documented cases of children unwittingly spending large sums on in-game virtual goods through their parents' iTunes accounts.

Equally, as a very popular game using a child-friendly licence, it wasn't a surprise Capcom was fingered when news broke that Apple was considering tweaking its in-app purchase mechanism because of the number of refunds being demanded by parents.

The result was logical; users now have to enter their password separately for app downloads and in-app purchases, although the 15 minute time-out window between password prompts remains in place.

It remains to be seen how forces outside the industry - notably governmental or financial - will deal with other issues, such as the regulating the amount of money that can be spent in single transactions and/or periods of time.

3. The rise and rise of Rovio

Hard to recall now, but it wasn't until March that Angry Birds notched up 100 million downloads, with the pace accelerating past the 500 million mark by November. On Christmas Day 2011, 6.5 million Angry Birds games were downloaded.

It's a remarkable story, particularly for a company that was going bust two and a half years ago, and since then has released just three titles, all within the same franchise.

Of course, there are elements of a fad, but that doesn't mean that a sustainable business won't emerge - and be acquired by one of the big media outfits once Rovio's insane valuation bubble pops.

More significant, however, is that many companies have followed Rovio's path, if without such headlines and to such heights.

As already discussed, Storm8 passed the 200 million game download mark in 2011, as did Outfit 7 with its Talking Friends apps. Backflip Studios is now over 150 million downloads, while Halfbrick has done over 100 million downloads of Fruit Ninja alone.

So while many journalists and developers now struggle to muster much enthusiasm for Rovio or Angry Birds, we should remember its success is a reflection of the entire mobile industry's disruptive march over traditional gaming.

2. Apple 'bans' incentivised downloads; industry works around it

Considering it's the story that keeps on giving, it's remarkable that Apple hasn't made any official statement about its decision in April to start rejecting app updates that used offerwalls to exchange in-game currency for downloads.

Indeed, even use of the word 'ban' isn't strictly correct as iOS apps and games that used the model but weren't updated continued to be available on the App Store; a lucrative source of income for their developers for months. 'Apple deprecated incentivised downloads' isn't such as good headline, though.

Still, the reason this story is so significant is the way companies such as Tapjoy, Flurry, W3i and Fiksu have worked throughout the year to get around the restriction on iOS [Android is open of course], so important are incentivised downloads to players who can't or don't want to pay, developers who want to generate revenue, and publisher who have the cash to buy users.

Tapjoy - which was the prime mover of the original scheme - has done this most elegantly with what it calls the Tapjoy Personal App Marketplace, something Fiksu has mirrored with its FreeMyApps.

Other companies have tweaked the action that's incentivised, with Flurry, AdColony and others employing it to get players to watch video, also giving them the opportunity to download apps if they so desire.

More generally, many developers have incorporate the mechanism, encouraging their players to review the game on iTunes, like it on Facebook or tweet - all actions rewarded with in-game currency.

Bottomline is that even Apple can't fight against the desire to get something for 'free', especially if it's 'money'.

1 $199 Kindle Fire

Of my four tablets - iPad, Xoom, PlayBook - Amazon's Kindle Fire is far-and-away the least nice and least used. But that's fine because it's the cheapest, being less than half the price of the others.

And as the massive success of the device in the two months since it's been available in the US demonstrates, price and 'good enough' functionality are sufficient to enthuse a large market that's interested in a cheap tablet which is okay at web browsing, games, video playable, music and reading.

Quite why it took tablet makers so long to realise this is something of a mystery; one that's put into focus by their numerous attempts to persuade the public to spend more than the cost of an iPad for less than an iPad's functionality - Motorola, RIM, HP, Sony, Asus etc please note.

Clearly 2012 will see everyone - perhaps even Apple - focusing on the sub-$300 price point for tablets, with - no doubt - some very interesting results.

Meanwhile, we await to see how Amazon deals with developer relations and the retailing of digital content, as it also continues to expand its family of devices.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.