SAN FRANSISCO — Was it the philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it?” Did he offer any hints for those of us who want to repeat the past, especially the successes? We’re beyond the teary elegies of 2011 and deep into making resolutions for 2012. If we’re going to stand half a chance of creating something great this year, it only makes sense to pause and celebrate what went right in 2011.
Here is our list of 2012 Technology of the Year Award winners, given to the hardware and software we reviewed over the past year that make life better for the people who toil in service of the enterprises and, it only follows, for the customers who are served by them. We spent several weeks arguing over the list and, in the end, produced our annual collection of tools we want to celebrate. Not all of the choices were unanimous, but all of them made us look two or three times because there was something amazing.
Many of the winners — but far from all — are new to the list, but that doesn’t mean they’re new to us. One of the list’s most distinctive features is how much it repeats the past, illustrating how much technology builds on what came before. Even the new entries are several years in the making. They didn’t appear out of nowhere, but captured the strengths of trends that have been building for numerous years.
Yesterday and today
The most obvious example is Microsoft Office 2010, condemned to repeat its success here even though you’re probably searching for the commenting button already to make the perfectly good claim that the digits “2010” don’t belong on a list for 2011. Fair enough, but we decided the Web apps from Google and others just weren’t ready to lead the parade. One editor said he wanted to assume that Office’s “days were numbered,” but then he took one look at Office’s record sales figures (which bear out the results of Serdar Yegulalp’s office suite comparison) and changed his mind. While the Web apps are undeniably cool and easy to administer, all of us had to admit there was just something zippier and truly empowering about a native app you install on your computer. We’re not arguing for becoming grid-free survivalists, just realists about the limits of the cloud.
Microsoft has also been enhancing other tools with a grip on the enterprise. Lync turns the PC into a communications center, usurping some of the responsibilities of that increasingly idle phone that sits next to it on your desk. The smooth videoconferencing, now more flexible and easier to install in your office, is only a minor piece of the promise. The Windows Small Business Server stack is also a winner here for all of the little enhancements that make it easier for small offices to start a full-service network and provide remote access through a Web interface. Microsoft shops can continue to sail into the future with a feature-rich environment that’s as current as can be found.
Our list includes a number of other unstoppable juggernauts that are similarly condemned to repeat the past. The iPad 2 follows the first iPad into the winner’s circle. The MacBook Air is also faster and better, like the iPad the model for a forthcoming wave of competing products. Apple continues to delight us with a walled paradise built on iOS and the App Store while delivering surprises like Siri, a tool that for some odd reason makes us smile instead of poke fun as we did with the Newton. The reality distortion field lives on. All of these tools are better connected to the cloud, which in this case means the Apple-only iCloud.
The bulk of the new products in this list all live in the cloud and are thoroughly part of the cloud ecology, delivering on cloud promises. We’re afraid that we’ll be condemned to repeating this “cloud” word for a long time.
Triumphs of the cloud
The cloud of 2011, though, is a far cry from the cloud of just a few years ago. The tools are more sophisticated, and there are more places to turn. The customers are more sophisticated too. We’re better equipped to know what we want from the so-called cloud, and that means the vendors are better prepared to deliver it. We want flexibility, simplicity, and the freedom to click our mouse three times, say “there’s no place like /home,” and find ourselves taken there immediately on a freshly started machine with the distro of our choice.
There’s certainly no place like Amazon Web Services, a turnkey supercomputer available to anyone with a credit card. Hadoop, too, appears here in all of its glory (making the leap from Bossies fame), although it’s rapidly becoming a collection of programs and distributions. Not only is there a wide range of open source tools that make it easier to run your Hadoop cluster, but there’s also a growing collection of commercial tools and services to help. Clouds — public or private — for distributed data processing are rapidly turning into an important part of the infrastructure.
Other winning tools bring more power and convenience to Web application developers. CakePHP and Web2py have been adding features that make it simpler to build and deploy PHP and Python applications to the cloud or, for that matter, to any machine. We also took notice of application platforms Heroku and CloudBees, which have integrated versioning tools into the cloud and made it simpler to build and deploy your applications there.
It’s worth noting that two of the development tools we chose this year are exclusively for the mobile platforms, one of the cloud’s natural partners. There may be BSD and Linux buried under the surface of our smartphones, but no one is supposed to spend much time on that layer. The explosion of handheld power is tightly linked to cloud-based services. We gave awards to both PhoneGap and Rhomobile Rhodes for simplifying the creation of mobile applications that run smoothly on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and even a few more.
Wait until next year
The explosion of mobile devices means that the migration away from the desktop is accelerating a bit — despite what we said above about Office 2010. Just a few years ago, the word “mobile” was just a niche for selling to customers on the go while helping the traveling sales force check in with HQ. Now the proliferation of tablets means that more and more people in the enterprise will do more and more of their work on thin, light, battery-powered, wireless devices running mobile OSes, not desktop OSes. We expect we’ll be repeating the word “mobile” as often as “cloud” in the years to come.
Our list is far from complete, of course. We left off NoSQL databases but not because they were a tired backwater with no innovation. No — we didn’t know where to begin to choose. Not only is the number of tools proliferating, but there’s also a growing understanding of the striking amount of variety in our needs. Some folks need logging for data that’s rarely used. Others want a certain amount of redundancy but not too much. Still others want to track personal information across a highly sharded cloud. In the end, we couldn’t begin to pick one or two that were clearly ahead of the pack because the pack (Oracle included) was doing so well and heading off in so many directions.