The 3 best mobile technology advances of 2010

Beyond the sexy new products and gee-whiz technologies, here are what made the mobile revolution succeed this past year

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2. Pay-as-you-go data pricing
This is another unsexy but foundational change. I know everyone loves the idea of all-you-can-eat plans, but the reality is that such plans aren't realistic in today's cellular networks, given their poor capacity in many areas. More than a decade after 3G was first deployed, the carriers still don't have it working as it should. All-you-can-eat encourages wasteful usage, which results in more and more people who can't get access because the networks' carrying capacity is swamped with cat video downloads and the like.

AT&T acknowledged this reality with the iPad's pay-as-you-go data plan, then followed up with an iPhone plan that lets you switch between two buckets of data -- 250MB and 2GB -- as you want each month, though you do need to make a two-year commitment to the lowest-cost option. Other U.S. carriers are beginning to follow suit, though not as broadly as they should. (Such pay-as-you-go data plans are already common in Europe, where carriers and their regulators have been more realistic about bandwidth issues.)

Don't let the "4G" marketing fool you -- wireless data remains an unevenly available commodity that should be used wisely. The best way to do that while honoring Net neutrality principles is to treat it like water and electricity: Pay for what you use, no matter what you use it for. Doing so will help mobile adoption grow because people will actually have a chance of getting decent online access -- and won't be stuck with bills for data they don't use.

3. The iPad
Here's the sexy key development of 2011: It seems obvious now that the iPad proved there was both room and desire for something not a laptop and not a smartphone. But it wasn't so obvious just a year ago, when conventional wisdom claimed a touch tablet would be a flop. The same conventional wisdom also said that even if people liked it as a Web-surfing video player, it would never appeal to business. Today, the iPad has displaced a lot of PC sales and is one of the hottest technologies ever in terms of business adoption.

A year ago, that "wisdom" was widespread, which is evident by the fact that the iPad has no credible competition. Google is still working on Android OS 3.0 "Honeycomb," leaving hardware makers with a choice of using an older OS not suited for tablets or waiting helplessly as Google works -- both painful options. (All indications are that the pain will end in spring 2011.) Research in Motion had to buy a company to get the technologies to develop a tablet, the PlayBook, which won't ship until spring 2011.

Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are both missing in action on the tablet front, with Hewlett-Packard backpedaling on its HP Slate 500 and staying silent about possible WebOS tablets, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer repeatedly making unmet promises of Window 7 tablets "soon" even as Microsoft PR said there were none forthcoming in the near future. The latest rumors say we'll see some prototypes announced in Jan. 2011.

Apple will have had a good year's head start on defining what a tablet is, and its second-generation iPad will be ready when the imitators' first generation arrives. That will let Apple set the parameters for the tablet platform, which I think will benefit the entire industry and, of course, users.

For 2011: Full-capability Web clients
One of the biggest frustrations with iPads and smartphones is that their browsers don't work as well as the desktop equivalents. Thus, many sites -- especially the kind that provide application-style functionality -- don't work well or even at all on a tablet or smartphone. It creates an inequality that could relegate mobile devices to second-class status.

The Safari browser on an iPad or iPhone should do what the Safari browser on a Mac or PC can. Likewise, the Chrome browser on an Android device should do what the Chrome browser can do on a PC or Mac. They fall short today.

If Apple and Google changed that, mobile devices would quickly become equal players to PCs. That may be bad for old-line companies such as Microsoft, Dell, and HP -- it's the post-PC "nightmare" scenario that Ozzie painted -- but it would be great for users and businesses, as it would free us all from any single platform.

This article, "The 3 best mobile technology advances of 2010," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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