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The top Download Squad stories of 2010

As yet another year slips quietly into the annual abyss, it's customary to take a retrospective glance at all that has happened. While history is surely nowhere near as exciting as the future -- especially as far as technology is concerned -- we can still learn a lot by looking back at the events of a year and analyzing, with perfect hindsight, what actually happened. After all, it is one thing to report on a new advance or technology, but it's another thing entirely to see how that technology has actually changed the world.

We'll lead with a prime example.

Microsoft Kinect

The Kinect was so much of a non-story for Download Squad that we didn't even write about it until after the launch. It quickly became apparent, thanks to massive interest in creating an open-source driver, that Kinect would be a whole lot more than just a video game controller.

Before we knew it, Windows 7 was being controlled by hand gestures -- and a 'Minority Report' UI from MIT followed quickly after. The year was rounded off by the release of official drivers for both Windows and Ubuntu -- go OpenNI! (Microsoft didn't actually develop any of the technology, it seems.)

We expect to see a lot of novel Kinect-powered interfaces in 2011, and maybe even an official Windows 7 app from Microsoft itself.

Mobile gaming explodes

At the start of 2010, it would be a rare occasion if we published more than one or two gaming-related stories per week. A time waster here, a free open-source cross-platform game there -- but that was about it. Mobile gaming was even worse -- prior to 2010, the entire sector was dominated by Apple, and scrupulously-scrubbed cousins at TUAW get first dibs on stuff like that. We still remember writing that unbelievable story: 99.4% of all app purchases in 2009 were made through Apple's iTunes App Store.

As 2010 rolled around, though, Android sales really started to pick up -- and nothing is better at driving innovation, and thus news, than competition! Android has spent most of this year nibbling away at Apple's market share, and as of today, Android is now only second to Symbian (a platform that strangely lacks games). Still, that's not to say Apple has lost the gaming war; far from it! Android, despite having a more developer-friendly platform, just doesn't seem to be able to uproot the bulk of the iOS games developers. Apple isn't resting on its laurels, either: a whole ton of games-centric stuff emerged from the brushed aluminum halls of Cupertino throughout the second half of the year, such as Game Center. Even the next iteration of Android looks like it will only just pull even with the iPhone, too.

We would also like to take a moment to apologize for the deluge of Angry Birds-related news -- we even wrote about the physics of Angry Birds, dammit! We have discussed the possibility of a spin-off blog called Bird Squad, but sadly someone has already registered

Oh, and we almost forgot: despite the crazy growth of the smartphone market in 2009 and 2010 (and expected sales of half a billion in 2011), and all signs pointing to its continued prevalence as a gaming platform, Nintendo says Mario will never appear in an Apple or Google app store.

Google this, Google that

You have to give it to Google: any company that creates news by increasing the width of its search box has obviously made it. The truth is, Download Squad probably covers more Google-related stories than any other topic -- which is fair enough when you consider Google's omnipresence on the Internet.

This year has been the busiest yet for Google, with more acquisitions than ever before: Picnik, Widevine, ITA Software, and others all joined big G, but we're sure the repercussions of the purchases won't be felt until 2011, though -- Google needs to integrate its new toys first, and that takes time!

2010 saw the retirement of Google Wave, a real-time communication tool that never really gained traction. Still, the fruits of Wave can already be seen on some of Google's recent offerings, and we're sure the EtherPad team will continue to work wonders with Google Docs.

More importantly, though, 2010 has seen Google fighting wars on more fronts than ever before. 2009 was all about Search and YouTube -- two battles that Google had all but won -- but 2010 has been significantly different. It started with a foray into social networking with Buzz (and boy did it stink), but by the middle of the year, it was all about the blown-wide-open mobile market. Microsoft finally realized that it needed to fight back, which resulted in both Bing and Windows Phone 7 nibbling at Google's market share. While Android is certainly doing well, its sustainability must be called into question when you factor Apple into the equation; Apple isn't going to simply let go of its obese cash cow. We fear that Google may have spread itself too thin to fend off attacks from both Apple and Microsoft, but we'll see.

Last but not least, we have to talk about our favorite little pet: Chrome OS. We've flogged the Chrome horse to death this year -- but has it all been for naught? Reviews of the Cr-48 netbook haven't been great -- and we'll have to see if a netbook OS can compete in a market that is experiencing a tablet and smartphone frenzy.

Smartphone fanaticism and fragmentation

Smartphones, fueled by continued iPhone zealotry -- I must have the iPhone 4!! -- and an impressive effort by the new kid on the block, Android, were a huge growth sector this year. With around 25% of the 270 million smartphones sold in 2010 -- up from just a few percent in 2009 -- it's safe to say that Android has arrived.

Driven by a cheaper, open platform, Android has flourished. But has it flourished too quickly? In true Google style, we've seen no less than three major revisions of the Android platform this year, and it shows no sign of slowing. Is Android's rapid iteration a good or bad thing, though? The rate at which Google is adding new features is certainly impressive, but cellphone manufacturers and mobile operators simply can't keep up. As of today, there are no less than four different Android minorities in the wild -- 1.5, 1.6, 2.1 and 2.2 -- and with 2.3 beginning to emerge, 2011 will surely be no better.

This fragmentation, if it isn't controlled, could eventually put a dampener on Android's rapid growth. Of course, you could argue that the Android platform is simply moving as fast as new smartphone hardware dictates -- we'll just have to wait and see.

It's also worth noting that, despite their almost nonexistent press coverage, both BlackBerry and Nokia both had solid smartphone sales in 2010. They're in a downward trend, though, and without the variety of apps available in the Android and iOS app stores, we expect them to lose even more ground in 2011.

The browser wars reignite

Following just behind Google, the next biggest topic on Download Squad in 2010 has been the HTML5 Browser Wars. Any war with Google and Microsoft facing off against each other is going to be a hotly-contested battle, but throw in audience-favorite Firefox, and the vicious vikings at Opera, and you truly have a war of epic proportions on your hands.

2010 has been all about HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript performance and hardware acceleration. After years of playing second fiddle to Flash, browsers are finally becoming a platform in their own right. JavaScript performance is now equal across the board, and hardware acceleration will make the most of computers that have discrete graphics processors. HTML5 and CSS3 will all but replace Flash, which has already resulted in some interesting developments from Adobe.

The competition between the browsers has been so fruitful that all three of the big players -- Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer -- are basically equivalent in terms of performance. That's a far cry from the middle of the year, when my 4-way browser comparison showed very clear winners and losers.

The end result is that the Web's future looks positively glowing with possibilities. Web apps made their debut in the Chrome Web Store, and Mozilla should launch its version in 2011. You can even play Quake 2 in the browser! The best bit, though, is that everything is standards-based! If you'd said two years ago that we'll have apps that run on major browser, desktop or laptop, tablet or smartphone, Windows machine or Mac, you would've been laughed at. Today, it looks like the utopian dream will actually come true.

Apps, apps, everywhere apps

To think, just a couple of years ago we used to call them programs. Remember that?

Then, in 2008, Apple released the App Store -- and look where we are now. You can hardly move for apps! Why did Apple call them apps, instead of 'progs,' anyway? Could it simply be because app sounds like Apple? Surely not...

Fast forward to 2010 and it feels like every other software release is an app. Beyond the usual slew of browser and anti-malware updates, all we seem to write about is apps! They're not all mobile apps, though, thankfully: Web apps have also been a big part of 2010, and as mentioned above, they will only become more prevalent (and powerful) in 2011.

One of the most interesting features of this 'appification' is that every company and website is expected to have apps. The New York Times is a great example: not only does it have a great website, but there's an iPad app, an Android app, and even a Web app. This is a trend that will continue into 2011, but hopefully with more emphasis being placed on the cross-platform Web apps.

Did we miss your favorite big story of 2010? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: 2010, android, angry birds, AngryBirds, apple, apps, browser, browser wars, BrowserWars, dls, download squad, DownloadSquad, features, games, google, hgg, html5, ios, mobile, roundup, smartphone