Back in 2005, Switched On dubbed its first full year of existence "The Year of the Switch" as IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo, Apple announced plans to leave the PowerPC platform for Macs and Microsoft moved to PowerPC processors for the XBox 360. But the dramatic reversals we saw in 2011 made even some of those decisions look tame by comparison. HP. Perhaps no tech company exhibited as much public expression of regret and uncertainty than the company often identified as the founding rock of Silicon Valley. A year after acquiring the hardware and software of Palm, Inc. and mere weeks after releasing its first webOS tablet, HP exited the webOS device business in which it had repeatedly vowed to "double down" (a kind of bet that indeed incurs some risk of loss at the card table) and ultimately decided to give the software to the open source community while retaining Palm's patent portfolio. Now webOS is off to forage for developer support with the promise of HP ultimately getting back into the webOS tablet business in 2012 or beyond.
Of course, the even bigger question swirling around the company was whether it would spin off its PC business entirely, which it ultimately decided against. That second guess extended its 1990s decision to enter the consumer PC market and its 2001 merger with Compaq. It will take some time for all the implications of the webOS decision to be made clear. For now, though, HP's consumer computing product line has essentially the same Windows-driven scope as it did before it acquired Palm.
AT&T. In contrast to HP, which developed its second-guessing internally, AT&T had its pushed upon it externally. Its bold move to acquire T-Mobile and once again become the largest carrier in the U.S. and extend its spectrum holdings collapsed under pressure from the Department of Justice and the FCC. AT&T's decision to give up on the merger required it to pay $4 billion to its historical GSM rival, proving that reversals can be costly.
Meanwhile, Verizon snatched up spectrum from cable companies Comcast, TimeWarner Cable, Bright House Networks and Cox that themselves second-guessed their plans to do something with the wireless spectrum they had acquired. Cox withdrew from the cellular service market earlier in the year. While Verizon's moves are also attracting the interest of federal regulators, they are unlikely to create as much of an uproar as T-Mobile's potential market exit did.
As for T-Mobile USA, assuming its parent company Deutsche Telekom still wishes to sell the group, a whole new round of suitors may now express interest, including Sprint. In late 2011, Sprint announced it would be moving away from WiMAX and embracing LTE, leading many to second-guess whether WiMAX had been the right move for the carrier after all.
Nokia. Months before HP decided to send webOS to the world of open source, Nokia, which had for years fought Microsoft via its support of Symbian and later the Symbian Foundation, embraced the company's Windows Phone platform as its strategic platform (jumping from a "burning" one) for smartphones moving forward, and marginalizing MeeGo, which had been its open OS of the future being built in collaboration with Intel. Nokia followed up this decision by releasing the MeeGo-based N9, which received broad accolades, and introduced design elements in Nokia's first Windows Phone-based flagship, the Lumia 800. Microsoft also had to bend a bit to woo Nokia to the Windows Phone party, allowing the Finnish phone maker the flexibility to make virtually any kind of change it wanted to the operating system, a term that it does not extend to its other licensees.
Nokia was not the only major handset multinational to see major changes in its business, particularly when it came to ownership. After a decade of participating in the Sony Ericsson joint venture, Sony will again go it alone in the handset business, seeking to stem the momentum of its rival Samsung in that space. And Motorola will become part of Google, although Google promises it will be just about business as usual for the favored maker of Droids.
Adobe. Heading into 2011, Adobe seemed confident in a future filled with Flash everywhere, servicing iOS with a cross-compiler that Apple had relented in approving. Whether it was Apple's blocking of the playback technology or an inevitable move to HTML5, Adobe decided to discontinue development of both the mobile and TV Flash clients. For Adobe, it represented a difficult reality check in the difficulty of maintaining a platform war, even using a platform that ride atop other operating systems.
Microsoft. Windows Phone was a huge bet for Nokia, but when CEO Steve Ballmer was asked what was Microsoft's riskiest product, he replied the next version of Windows. That generally wouldn't be much of a surprise as so much of the company's fortunes are tied to its desktop operating system. However, in the case of Windows 8, which was rolled out at its BUILD conference, it was easy to see why this was especially so.
Windows 8 will employ a new Metro user interface optimized for touch in a bid to recapture the slate market Microsoft first tried to drive with Tablet PC but saw stolen away with the iPad. Toward that end, will also be the first version of Windows to run on ARM processors like those from Qualcomm, NVIDIA and TI, helping to deliver sleek form factors and long battery life. The new processor support marks the first extension beyond x86 since the days of Windows NT, which ran on PowerPC and MIPS processors in addition to those from Intel and AMD. As we head into 2012 for the tech industry, one thing is for sure. On the other hand, maybe it isn't.
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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