Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.
The consumer technology landscape shifted somewhat in 2007. Companies that were once major forces, including Gateway and Thomson Consumer Electronics, better known to most Americans as RCA, were acquired as their fortunes declined. MVNOs such as Amp'd and Disney Mobile closed their doors as did PC retailer CompUSA. Palm, forced to kill its "third platform" of Foleo, was saved from a similar fate by an influx of capital. Delivering alternative programming into homes proved too challenging for set-top boxes from Akimbo and MovieBeam. And there were changings of the guard at Dell, Sprint, AT&T, Motorola and Logitech, to name a few.
However, amidst all this tumult, a number of products were released that deserve recognition. In many industries, there is a defining award that recognizes excellence. Today, though, these products will have to settle for a Switchie, the third annual Saluting Wares Improving Technology's Contribution to Humanity award.
The "The Right MultiTouch" and Product of the Year Award goes to the Apple iPhone. While it was difficult to find news about this obscure device in 2007, the iPhone's slick user interface, polished applications and appealing interface navigation methods outweighed its EDGE network limitations and touch-screen keyboard compromises. With a sleek design taken for granted in Apple products, the iPhone was noteworthy for straddling the traditionally fragmented worlds of smartphones and fashion phones. The announced arrival of an SDK next year offers tantalizing possibilities.
Another Honorable Mention in the cell phone category goes to the LG Voyager which includes features such as a spacious QWERTY keyboard, large touch screen wth haptic feedback, GPS, EV-DO and MediaFLO "live television" connectivity. It's not an answer to the iPhone or even a smartphone, but a significant step-up from the company's popular enV handset. The Helio Ocean also tightly integrated carrier-driven services and put a premium on tactile feedback with its double slider design. However, like the Voyager, it stretches the boundaries of its user interface.
The "Affordable Ultraportable" Award goes to the Asus Eee, which packed an impressive amount of functionality into a form factor that barely passes ergonomic muster. It's a lttle pricey for a secondary PC, but can run Windows XP in addition to its bundled Linux package. Honorable mention goes to the OLPC XO, unfit for consumption by most U.S. adults (it does not, for example, currently support access to WPA-protected hotspots), but a great feat of cost-reduction engineering and a promising start to a compelling vision.
The "Pocket Power" Award goes to the Nokia N810, whch added a much-needed keyboard and more questionable GPS to the best reason Nokia has given to carry two devices. It's one of the few ultraportable communication devices to support Bluetooth for dial-up networking, although a version of the Internet Tablet line has been announced for Sprint's WiMAX network. An Honorable Mention goes to the sleek, 3G-enabled OQO Model 02.
The "Connected Content" Award goes to the SanDisk Sansa Connect. In a competitive year for MP3 players, the Connect both benefited from and struggled because of its integration of Wi-Fi and Yahoo services, but the notion of cached music on the go will be tried again early next year with the Slacker Portable. Dell was so impressed by the Zing software that powered the Connect that it bought the company, casting doubt on whether we will see future devices based on the Zing platform, at least from SanDisk.
Honorable mentions in the media player category go to the iPod touch, which suffered unfairly for its comparsons to the iPhone, the Samsung P2, and the Archos 605, with its broad functionality, even if it does require customers to purchase almost every extra application.
Speaking of connectivity, the "Fire in the Sky" Award goes to the Amazon Kindle, an early example of adding wireless broadband connectivity to consumer electronics, and one where access to content is a critical component of the device. Amazon has failed to appreciate that good industrial design is not an optional feature of progressive devices, but brought in some welcome features not present in last year's Switchie-award winning Sony Reader, as well as a far broader selection of books.
Finally, the "Jack of One Rate" award goes to the inexpensive MagicJack, which provides a simple, inexpensive annual plan to make unlimited long distance calls with its USB dongle and an old analog phone or PC headset.
The next Switched On will reveal the Switchie award winners for home products.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.