In 2011, the increasingly mobile and socially networked world of technology became more intertwined than ever with politics and the law. Patent wars shaped competition in tablets and smartphones, hacktivists attacked a widening array of political and corporate targets, repressive regimes unplugged citizens from the Internet, and the U.S. government moved to block the giant merger of AT&T and T-Mobile USA. With the passing of Steve Jobs, the world lost a technology icon who redefined the computer, entertainment and consumer electronics industries. These are the IDG News Service's picks for the top 10 technology stories of the year:
-- The PlayStation Network hack, Anonymous and the rise of hacktivism
April attacks on Sony's PlayStation and Qriocity networks knocked out service for millions of users for two months, compromised personal data of some 70 million subscribers and cost Sony $170 million to clean up. The attacks were partly in retaliation against Sony's response to the release of code for its PS3 console that let the device run unauthorized software. Though it's unclear whether members of Anonymous or an affiliated hacker group, LulzSec, were responsible, the stakes have been raised for politically motivated hacking, or hacktivism. Anonymous, the most high-profile hactivist group, this year claimed or was believed to have launched attacks against entities as disparate as security firm HBGary, child-porn sites, Koch Industries, Bank of America, NATO and various government websites. LulzSec, Peoples Liberation and TeaMp0isoN are among the the groups claiming affiliation with the Anonymous collective. Though police have made arrests in the U.S., the U.K., Spain and elsewhere, the success of high-profile hacks has assured that politically oriented hacking is here to stay.
-- AT&T's deal to buy T-Mobile unravels
With AT&T still reeling from the U.S. Department of Justice's August lawsuit to block its US$39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA, staff at the Federal Communications Commission in November announced they found the deal against the public interest. Government officials say it would create the largest concentration of market power in the U.S. mobile industry, reducing competition, raising prices and crushing innovation. The carriers say the deal is necessary for them to bring LTE (Long-Term Evolution) broadband to nearly all of the U.S. Under heavy fire, though, the deal will quite possibly fall apart for good. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle has granted a request from AT&T to halt the DOJ's lawsuit while the two carriers decide whether to move forward with a merger. AT&T will present a status report on Jan. 12.
-- Apple sues Samsung: Android under siege again
Apple's lawsuit against Samsung, launched in the U.S. in April and eventually involving courtroom battles in Germany, France, Australia and elsewhere, focused on a patent for list-scrolling software and three smartphone and tablet design patents. The real threat to Apple, however, is not only Samsung but Google's Android. While Samsung, which sells Android devices, became the world's biggest smartphone vendor this year, Android's market share surpassed 50 percent, comprising 60 million devices from multiple vendors. Android's success makes it a target. Google suffered a direct legal attack in 2010 when Oracle filed a lawsuit charging that Android infringes Oracle patents and copyrights related to Java. Microsoft, also gunning for Android, signed a cross-patent deal with Samsung in September that grants it royalties from Samsung's Android-based smartphones and tablets. Meanwhile, Google hopes to strengthen its patent arsenal by acquiring Motorola Mobility, which itself was hit with a lawsuit last year from Microsoft. With Smartphones and tablet sales skyrocketing, the stakes are enormous and Android-related legal battles likely will be fought for years to come.
-- Stop Online Piracy Act
Introduced in October in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, would give U.S. law enforcement the ability to obtain court orders to stop search engines, payment processors and other entities from doing business with websites accused of enabling copyright infringement. The Act would also allow copyright holders to obtain court orders to block allegedly infringing sites under certain conditions. SOPA is wider in scope than the similar Protect IP Act in the U.S. Senate. Critics say the bills, particularly SOPA, give law enforcement sweeping powers to censor legitimate websites, such as YouTube, that may host some infringing content, and could end up being misused by companies as a way to block competitors. The legislative debate will continue well into 2012.
-- Egypt goes offline
Just after midnight Cairo time on Jan. 28, 3, 500 Internet Border Gateway Protocol routes connecting Egypt to the rest of world vanished from sight. It didn't take long to figure out that Egyptian service providers, under pressure from a government besieged by political protest, had cut connectivity to the Internet. Mobile telecommunications were similarly affected. As soon as access returned five days later, Egyptians logged back on to social networks. In the next few months, Libya and Syria also moved to sever the Internet and various African regimes blocked social networks in the face of election tumult. As the Internet becomes an increasingly important organizational tool and information conduit, such attempts to cut connectivity amid political unrest will no doubt continue.
-- Japan devastated by massive earthquake
The March 11 earthquake in Japan, the biggest in its history, took its toll on the country's electronics industry. The earthquake constrained the supply of raw materials and components such as NAND flash memory, microcontrollers and LCD parts. Prices soared after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which damaged facilities belonging to Sony, Freescale, Fujitsu, Texas Instruments and other companies. Floods in Thailand in the second half of the year made it a one-two punch for the PC and component markets. After expanding about 30 percent in 2010, global semiconductor revenue will squeeze out barely a 1 percent increase this year, with sales of DRAM, SRAM and NOR Flash memory expected to decline 15 percent or more, according to analysts.
-- The HP Follies: Apotheker's bungled restructuring
Barely a year into his tenure as Hewlett-Packard CEO, Leo Apotheker was ousted in September soon after announcing that the company would seek to spin off its $40 billion PC business, the largest in the world. Apotheker, who had been fired from SAP in February after the ERP maker fumbled its move to cloud technology, had little experience with hardware. Apotheker himself took up the reins at HP after the ouster of Mark Hurd, who resigned following an investigation into claims of sexual harrassment. After initially declaring that HP would go through with Apotheker's plan to sell the PC unit, newly appointed CEO Meg Whitman, the former chief executive at eBay, decided to hang on to it. HP now says PCs are key to long-term relationships with customers. The company faces other challenges. Net earnings for HP in its fourth quarter were $200 million, down from $2.5 billion in the same period last year, and Whitman herself said that Apple would probably overtake HP in the PC market next year, if iPad sales are included.
-- ICANN hands out last IPv4 addresses, sets clock ticking for IPv6
In February, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), operated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, handed out its last IPv4 addresses, allocating the final five blocks of 16 million addresses to each of five regional Internet registries (RIRs). The imminent depletion of IPv4, which provided 4.3 billion addresses, is a sign of how quickly the Internet has grown, and puts pressure on ISPs and companies to switch to its successor, IPv6. Though some regions might not exhaust their supply of IPv4 addresses for several years, Internet communications could break down over time unless network managers migrate to IPv6, which allows for better security, better network management and what's thought to be an inexhaustible supply of addresses. IPv6-based hosts will not be able to communicate with IPv4-only systems without techniques that could impair Internet communications.
-- Microsoft moves to ARM with Windows 8
Microsoft took advantage of the CES spotlight in January to announce that Windows 8 will run on system-on-chip architectures including ARM-based processors, part of its effort to get Windows used on tablets. Other features of the upcoming version of Windows, which will continue to run on Intel chips and PCs as well, include the new Metro interface, which emphasizes touch and a Windows app store. However, the many businesses still migrating to Windows 7 are unlikely to upgrade again soon. And while Windows 8, which could appear on products next year, expands the hardware possibilities for Windows, it's ironic that Apple's iPad already has established such a commanding lead in tablets, a form factor that was long ago championed by Bill Gates. With Microsoft's history of coming from behind in markets to eventually grab a dominant position, though, Windows 8 should not be counted out before it ships.
-- The passing of a legend: Steve Jobs dies
Though it's too soon for history to judge the role Steve Jobs played in shaping technology, the outpouring of tributes around the world when the 56-year-old Apple co-founder died on Oct. 5 was a testament to his iconic status. With Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (also born in 1955) as a foil, Jobs was one of the two key figures in the PC era, and perhaps the most important business leader ushering tech into the post-PC world. His life was an American success story: the tale of a comeback kid, ousted in tears from his own company in the 1980s, only to revolutionize animated movie-making in the '90s and return to lead Apple's march to dominance at the start of the 21st century. With Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs fueled the PC revolution with the Apple II, and after his return to Apple led the company to redefine the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, the phone market with the iPhone, and the personal computer market yet again with the iPad. Jobs' triumphant return was capped in August when Apple overtook, at least for a time, Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company on the planet in terms of market capitalization. Though a difficult and even despotic leader by many accounts, no one denied Jobs' passion and singular position at the crossroads of technology and culture.