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New gadgets galore on tap for year ahead

In this Sept. 23, 2008 file photo, the T-Mobile G1 Android-powered phone, the first cell phone with the operating system designed by Google Inc., is shown in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP) In this Sept. 23, 2008 file photo, the T-Mobile G1 Android-powered phone, the first cell phone with the operating system designed by Google Inc., is shown in New York.
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 31, 2009

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If you’re a digital entrepreneur planning to launch a new, world-changing technology in 2010, congratulations. Now get in line.

It’s the last day of 2009, and next year’s pipeline of groundbreaking gadgets is already stuffed. Search engine giant Google Inc. is expected to announce its own line of cellphones in early January. Apple Inc. is rumored to be ready to demonstrate a new tablet computer, a sort of mega-iPhone with a giant touch-sensitive screen. Then there’s the accelerating rollout of new, high-speed wireless data services from the nation’s cellphone carriers, and Microsoft Corp.’s desperate, buzzer-beater bid to survive the smartphone playoffs.

Besides, I’m still coping with the fallout from 2009’s top technology trends. There’s plenty to sort through.

Tens of thousands of smartphone apps, for instance. By opening up the iPhone and iPod Touch music player to programs written by independent software writers, Apple turned those devices into full-fledged hand-held computers, serious alternatives to desktop machines. The process began in 2008, but caught fire in the past year. By now, people worldwide have downloaded more than 2 billion iPhone apps.

Rival smartphones learned the lesson. Now there’s an online store offering hundreds of apps for BlackBerry phones, while users of phones running Google’s up-and-coming Android software can choose from thousands of mini-programs.

It’s been a great year for Android, largely due to the impressive new Droid phone, manufactured by Motorola and sold by Verizon Wireless. Droid is the first phone to feature Google’s free GPS navigation software, an innovation that threatens to kill off traditional GPS vendors like TomTom. Droid’s elegant design is marred by a wretched keyboard, but that didn’t prevent consumers from buying 250,000 of the phones in their first week. It was the first Android device to become a must have for ordinary consumers, and proof that the Android platform now poses a serious threat to the iPhone.

Another portable device came into its own in 2009: the e-reader. Amazon.com’s Kindle was the company’s best-selling item of the just-ended Christmas season, while bookseller Barnes & Noble sold out of its alternative, the Nook. I suspect most e-texts will eventually be read on cellphones rather than dedicated readers. Either way, the day is coming when most books will be battery-powered.

The year also gave us signs of revival at Microsoft Corp., which introduced not one, but two excellent products. Its Windows 7 operating system is everything Vista wasn’t. It’s compact, fast, and blessed with a user interface that’s superior in some ways to Apple’s vaunted Macintosh. Microsoft also gave us Bing, an Internet search service that’s become a superb alternative to Google. The company knows it’s onto something. Check out its recent ads; the swagger is back.

But it’ll take more than swagger to restore Microsoft’s fading fortunes in the smartphone market. Windows Mobile, once the number two smartphone system in the United States after BlackBerry, fell to number three in 2009, overtaken by the iPhone. Hence the importance of Windows Mobile 7. Due out in late 2010, it’s probably Microsoft’s last chance to get back into the game.

Google seems to be doubling down on the smartphone market in 2010. Not content with making phone software, the company is expected to demonstrate a phone of its own. Google has confirmed the existence of the device, which is being tested by company employees. How it’ll look and how much it’ll cost are still matters of conjecture, but if the price is right, the Googlephone could be a wireless game-changer.

The new year should also see a surge of super-fast wireless broadband services, as companies deploy 4G data networks. Imagine watching DVD-grade video on your laptop anytime, anywhere, for $50 a month. People are already doing it in Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities thanks to Clearwire Corp., which plans to serve 80 US markets by 2010. Verizon Wireless is testing its own 4G service in Boston, and plans to offer it to consumers in 25 to 30 major markets next year.

And then there’s Apple’s tablet computer, which might debut next month. It seems every tech journalist is in love with the idea, except for me. Previous tablet devices have gone nowhere, because touchscreens aren’t as familiar and reliable as a keyboard. If any company can crack the code, it’s Apple. But I refuse to climb onto the next-big-thing bandwagon yet. There’s no hurry, after all. I’ve got a whole yearful of new gadgets ahead of me.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.