Road warrior roadkill: 2011's mobile technology losers

Spectacular flameouts and products that simply ran out of gas litter the road to the mobile future we're all traveling

The mobile technologies that came to the end of their road this year

This was the year that Apple would be taken down -- or so many pundits said a year ago as they anticipated a resurgent webOS backed by Hewlett-Packard, Research in Motion's plans for a BlackBerry tablet, Microsoft's plans for a revised Windows Phone OS, and of course Google's Android steamroller. It didn't quite work out that way. Apple's iOS 5 and iCloud gained fast adoption, as did its iPhone 4S, despite the widespread disappointment when the fiction of an iPhone 5 promulgated by some bloggers and analysts didn't come to pass. The iPad 2, in fact, showed there is no tablet market but simply an iPad market.

Still, although Android tablets largely failed to get traction, Android smartphones took off, surpassing iPhone sales by a wide margin. Meanwhile, Microsoft made a second attempt on Windows Phone smartphone OS that has garnered respect, and the company showed off its Windows 8 tablet OS that might give the iPad a real competitor in 2012. And Amazon.com's Kindle Fire, although limited in its capabilities , showed there could be a non-iPad market of some sort.

Of course, such hopes may or may not play out. We certainly saw in 2011 that many supposedly surefire winners flame out spectacularly on the race course or simply run out of gas. Join me for a tour of the road warrior roadkill. (And revisit last year's mobile roadkill in our slideshow.)

RIM BlackBerry

RIM BlackBerry

Research in Motion made a lot of noise in August about its BlackBerry 7 smartphones , featuring faster hardware and a revised OS. But the reality is that these ultimately minor upgrades are the end of the road for the BlackBerry platform we've known for more than a decade. RIM is working on a new hardware and software platform, and the current BlackBerry devices (and their apps) won't work in the new BlackBerry 10 OS , which is based on the QNX OS from the PlayBook tablet. (BlackBerry 10 had been named BBX until Dec. 6, when RIM lost a trademark dispute over the name.) We'll see next year if the BlackBerry reboot works to revitalize the fast-falling mobile pioneer. Regardless of how the BBX smartphones do, the BlackBerry smartphones today are already obsolete, as is the era that spawned them.

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook

The same year that Research in Motion decided to replace its longtime BlackBerry smartphone platform with a new one to debut in 2012, it released its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in April, half a year after first showing it off. That PlayBook uses the QNX OS that the new BlackBerry 10 OS is to be based on, and the version in the PlayBook was not very good. The PlayBook had many flaws , but most were outside the OS itself, so it's too soon to write off BlackBerry 10. Those PlayBook flaws included undepowered hardware, a too-small screen, limited apps, and lack of email and other communication capabilities unless tethered to a BlackBerry via Bluetooth. The result was a poky tablet that couldn't do anything useful -- and was unsecurable unless paired to a BlackBerry.

Incredibly, RIM thought it could boost BlackBerry sales by forcing PlayBook users to have a BlackBerry. As any rational person could have predicted, customers avoided the PlayBook, whose sales appear to be well under 250,000 units (versus at least 45 million for the iPad 2). RIM is working on a new PlayBook -- let's hope RIM learned its lesson this time. Otherwise, RIM itself will end up as road warrior roadkill in 2012.

7-inch Android tablets

7-inch Android tablets

Even Google warned companies not to make them, but Google's slow road to releasing a tablet-savvy version of its Android mobile OS caused many device makers to use the smartphone version of Android in 7-inch tablets. Samung's original Galaxy Tab was the first of these to gain any significant presence in stores, but Dell's Streak (pictured here) predated it by several months. And many companies that should have known better -- including Cisco Systems, Huawei, HTC and ViewSonic -- offered these unsatisfying devices throughout 2011, as Google rationed access to the tablet-oriented Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS. Apparently in their minds, a bad Android tablet offering was better than no product offering at all. But customers didn't agree, and most of these have thankfully disappeared into Big Lots stores, "who?" online retailers and landfills.

As for "real" 7-inch Android tablets, they're just starting to appear from manufacturers such as Acer, Samung and Toshiba. We'll see in 2012 if small tablets running an OS actually intended for tablets does better than the 2010-2011 smartphone-based variety.

Chromebooks

Chromebooks

A browser in a box: That's what a Chromebook -- a laptop running Google's Chrome OS -- is. Questions arose as soon as Google unveiled its Chromebook plans in December 2010 as to whether a browser-only computer could work, but Google promised to make offline versions of key apps such as Google Docs so that users could continue to work even when offline. It then got Acer and Samsung to build Chromebooks and begin selling them in July. But Google has yet to take offline versions of its key apps, and customers didn't see the point of buying a laptop that could run only the Chrome browser when for the same price they could get an iPad or Windows laptop.

The kind way to put it is that the Chromebook is a major flop , with buyers ignoring it and analysts puzzled as to its purpose . Perhaps it'll be killed as Google continues the housecleaning launched by CEO Larry Page earlier this year of its zillion throw-it-against-the-wall projects. Or perhaps Google's vision of a cloud-only world will come true one day and the Chromebook concept will prevail. But if it does, my bet is it will happen on a Mac OS/iOS hybrid or Windows 8 device . The Chromebook will be at best a broken-down vehicle early on that road.

WebOS, the TouchPad and the Pre and Pixi

WebOS, the TouchPad and the Pre and Pixi

The most spectacular flameout on the mobile road in 2011 had to be webOS, which Hewlett-Packard bought in mid-2010, then promised would power not only smartphones but tablets and PCs in a universal OS across all devices. HP gave the webOS-based TouchPad tablet an overwrought coming-out party in winter 2011, and CEO Leo Apotheker reiterated his commitment to the platform through the spring. But when HP released the tablet in June, it was clear the TouchPad was a major dud . WebOS itself remained compelling if incomplete, but the built-in apps were superficial and the hardware noticeably underpowered. As a result, the whole package proved to be as disappointing as RIM's earlier BlackBerry PlayBook.

What made the TouchPad's failure so spectacular was that just six weeks after the TouchPad's debut, HP not only killed the TouchPad, but also its Pre and Pixi smartphones and the entire webOS effort. Apotheker's stated commitment to webOS, tablets and smartphones proved to be insincere. He was forced out shortly after, but new HP CEO Meg Whitman and the HP board let the webOS death sentence stand, indicating Apotheker wasn't alone in his lack of commitment to the bold webOS strategy HP announced in the winter. Whatever promise webOS had -- and it once had a lot -- has now evaporated.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

There have been many failed Android tablets in 2011. In fact, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is about the only one that can claim even modest success worldwide (the Acer Iconia has done so-so in Europe). The rest -- such as the Motorola Xoom , the first to have the tablet-oriented Android 3.x "Honeycomb" OS -- have barely gained buyers' notice. So why single out the Sony Tablet S? Launched with much PR fanfare in September, it quickly gained poor reviews as a weak tablet aimed at roping users into Sony's mediocre media offerings. If the Tablet S ever reached store shelves, it didn't stay on them very long. But the reason to call out this Android tablet is that it shows once more how Sony's once-legend product magic is long gone.

QuarkXPress 9.1

QuarkXPress 9.1

Not all mobile failures occur in hardware offerings. Case in point is QuarkXPress 9.1, the newest version of the pioneering desktop publishing software. XPress 9 was supposed to allow the creation by designers anywhere of iPad apps for magazines, books and other content via App Store container apps, with the kinds of reader-friendly controls such as resizable text "liquid layout" that you find in leading e-periodicals such as The New York Times , the San Francisco Chronicle and The Economist .

When XPress 9 shipped this spring, the promised iPad e-reader features weren't there but were promised for a free update to ship in 90 days. Nearly four months later, that 9.1 update arrived -- minus the liquid layout. All you could create were glorified PDF-style static documents. Worse, I couldn't get the software's convoluted process for actually creating an e-reader container app to work outside the app's demo mode; Quark initially kept changing the process and finally gave up trying to help make its own App Store integration process work. Quark swears a couple customers have gotten this software to work, a damning defense.

The larger promise remains unfulfilled: easy iPad (and also promised for the future) Android publishing. Publishers of all stripes remain stuck in the horrible world of terrible mobile publishing tools .

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