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The best hardware, software, and cloud services of the year

InfoWorld's 2013 Technology of the Year Award winners stretch from devices and desktops to data centers and beyond

Around the office, the Technology of the Year package is known by the acronym TOY, and many of the winners this year are perfect examples of why someone's subconscious chose this title. For the serious technologist, most everything on this list is just asking to be unpacked and played with. It's just like that bumper sticker on a pickup truck reading "Home Depot is my toy store."

The list of winners was built over the year as we watched what we reviewed, then chose the items that we came back to play with again and again. They were the "best" products we saw, but remember that the notion of "best" is not computed on any absolute scale. Windows 8, for instance, required a zillion times more work to create than most of the items on this list, and we remain in awe of the Herculian effort it took to build it, even though we found too many reasons to be disappointed or unforgiving to include it. As President Kennedy once said, "Life is not fair."

[ Read about the winning hardware, software, development tools, and cloud services in our slideshow, "InfoWorld's 2013 Technology of the Year Award winners." | Cut straight to the key news for technology development and IT management with our once-a-day summary of the top tech news. Subscribe to the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

There is no rule for what defined the list, but there were common themes. Each item was chosen for itself alone, but some patterns started appearing. The software world, like everything else of human origin, is subject to fads and obsessions.

One big theme is ease. The companies on the list didn't invent a flying car or a quantum computer. They took well-understood ideas and did the hard work to make them more fun to use. A number of the products are simpler to configure and, thus, more practical and efficient to deploy. They're sort of the enterprise equivalent of that kitchen toy that bakes bread with a push of a button.

Better living through cloud computing The drive for ease and flexibility is a big part of the industry's obsession with the cloud, and we were not immune to it. The various cloud services are on the list because they made things simpler than filling out the requisition forms, buying your own machines, and even configuring the stacks. You push some buttons on a Web page and you have root.

Providing ease wasn't enough, though, because the industry is full of clouds that do that. We ended up awarding Joyent Cloud and Windows Azure, two clouds that offered faster machines at lower prices. That makes it easier to present the bill to your CFO.

The new clouds are also starting to offer well-defined services, and these are meant to be easier than doing all of the installation and configuration work yourself. You send your packets into the cloud, and someone else worries about making it all work together and scale up to be as big as your CFO's dreams. The packets go in and your answers come out. You don't have to worry about what happens in between.

For instance, CloudBees is essentially a Rube Goldberg machine for handling all of the biggest and smallest chores for Java development. It integrates all of the most important open source tools in one stack. You commit your code so that Jenkins will clean it up and test it. Then you push another button and deploy it to CloudBees' machines. Your code goes in one end of the pipeline and out comes a working enterprise stack. Along the way, bazillions of little software hammers, levers, cogs, and cams manipulate it to be just right.

This kind of extreme integration and bundling is another big theme. The products on our list just do more than products used to do. Windows Azure, for instance, isn't just an IaaS cloud, but includes hooks to other Microsoft products ranging from Visual Studio to Bing and Windows Phone. OpenRemote integrates disparate hardware platforms to create an ecosystem for managing a building. These solutions deliver more options, more features, and more comprehensive applications.

Open source meets big data A number of the software packages listed here are largely open source. There's no doubt that some open source packages aren't easy to use, and some have documentation so bad that reading the code is the only real option, but that's not true for the ones we've chosen. They're well-documented, relatively easy to start up, and ready for serious play.

The openness is a big part of this fun because the open source code invites the kind of interactive experimentation that makes engineers and programmers happy. The tools are not just solutions, but opportunities for imaginative customization. They're like Lego sets or Lincoln Logs but built with bits.

The openness also makes everything a bit more social. Hadoop, Lucene, and Cassandra are the centers of a hive of collective fun and creative recoding. The source code is just the beginning because many are wrapping their own code around the core libraries.

Lucene, for instance, is a great indexing tool, but more and more people are turning to the stacks of code that are wrapped around it. They handle all of the housekeeping like sharding the database across multiple nodes or unpacking the XML. Lucene is just the center of an expanding world. When we celebrate Lucene, we're including everything orbiting around it too.

These open source projects are often at the core of another big theme: big data. The enterprise world is investing heavily in big toys to handle the flood of endless numbers, telemetry, and information. The management of every technology-based company is obsessed with making some sense from the huge collection of log files gathering virtual dust. The increasingly sophisticated tools for combing through big data are the answer.

Pretty as an iPad Finally, we ended up choosing a few things that were, to extend this theme, easy on the end-user. Even by some of the standards that Apple set in the past, the iPad Mini is pretty cool. It fits nicely in the hand -- smaller is better -- yet remains as functional, usable, and complete as the full-size iPad. Nothing comes as close to bundling a pure, clean, beautifully portable mechanism for absorbing information.

When it meshes with functionality, the power of beauty affects software too. There are thousands of Linux distros, but Ubuntu rightfully attracts the most attention. While there has been much to love about Ubuntu in the past, the new packaging -- the smooth and modern Unity UI -- pushes it over the top.

Will these trends continue in the New Year? No one can be certain about the surprises that will come out of the blue, but the same trends that shaped this list will continue to be important in 2013. They will continue to shape the working world.

The challenges of exploiting information in big data are just beginning. The code is starting to work well, and the companies are starting to move beyond experimentation. It won't be enough to simply execute Hadoop jobs, but the jobs must run quickly and generate results. We'll see better, faster, and simpler Hadoop implementations next year.

The continual push for more ease and simplicity will continue. The cloud applications will do more, and they'll do a better job of configuring themselves without your help. It is in the best interests of the cloud companies to make it easy for you to start up N machines with a click of a button. They will continue to make it as simple as possible to spend by the hour.

Also expect that everyone will devote more emphasis on packaging and appearance. While enterprise IT is always the last place to value style over substance, the end-users within the enterprise aren't as pure of heart. For this reason, the best products will emulate Ubuntu and the iPad, mixing in a bit of slick packaging with the prerequisite ease-of-use.

In other words, expect this next year to produce prettier, more beguiling stacks of code with more power packed into prettier interfaces. If this year is any indication, they'll be even shinier, fancier, and more beguiling next year. The Technology of the Year Award winners are an introduction to what's coming around the corner.

This story, "The best hardware, software, and cloud services of the year," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in applications, cloud computing, software development, hardware, mobile computing, security, storage,virtualization, and Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.


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