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A Year For Smarter Phones, Crowded Clouds

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Looking Back at 2008

Handsets, smarter smartphones, sleek design, touch screens galore and (finally) faster wireless data speeds — 2008 proved to be a year dominated by smartphones.

As rounds up the stories that dominated tech in 2008 — it is clear the year was about more than iPhone lust.

The bumpy arrival of the second Apple iPhone might have cooled its popularity for a nanosecond. But even the reports of trouble downloading iTunes, firmware issues, lack of inventory and network problems couldn’t slow the iPhone’s popularity for long. The launch of the 3G led a handset storm of smartphones hitting the market by mid-year.

Take the HTC G1, the first open source Android-based handset based on Google’s Android platform.

Although interest is lukewarm compared to the iPhone 3G and response to the latest BlackBerries by RIM, the Android platform is generating excitement over the innovative possibilities that the open platform could usher in. It’s early, very early. But time is only compressing between handset refreshes, and application momentum can grow quickly.

After all, Palm may be struggling to stop losing any more smartphone market share to rivals, but the widespread appeal of so many applications available for the Treo and other lines is helping to keep users with the platform.

In a year filled with new devices launches, never have handset makers struggled as much to differentiate their devices and offerings while they rolled out new handsets.

Research in Motion’s Storm smartphone device, the first BlackBerry without the adored full QWERTY keyboard, arrived late in the year and is considered the iPhone’s biggest competitor.

Nokia isn’t far behind though its top smartphone, the N97, which came out in European markets this year. (No word on when it will hit North American markets.)

And, in another example of the iPhone influence on design, touch screens are now the norm on many devices. Some vendors have extended that feature to a multi-touch display to try and outdo the iPhone.

The year closed out with wireless carriers dropping device prices and rate plan costs amid the recession. At the same time, applications for devices are exploding in popularity, as are the online app stores that sell them.

Apple’s App store claimed 300 million downloads in just five weeks and a doubling of offerings from 5,500 to 10,000 in the same timeframe.

But what about the networks to help deliver all that device data?

The Wonder of WiMAX

The Wimax (define) networking protocol, also known as 4G, promises to deliver the fastest and most ubiquitous data services connectivity yet, moved from hype to reality this year with the ambitious Sprint and Clearwire network plan and the birth of a brand new WiMax company.

Carriers and handset makers are banking that WiMAX will win hearts and minds of mobile device users who want data and access to people and information anywhere and anytime.

Sprint deployed its first WiMAX network leg in Baltimore. So far, so good, but it’s a lot of up front investment. Sprint expects that the new Clear network will need an additional infusion of $2 billion to $3 billion in 2009.

Yet Sprint, Clearwire and its supporters remain bullish on Wimax’s future.

Vendors are already at the design board mocking up WiMAX devices that will take advantage of the connectivity speeds. WiMAX handsets, at some point, will follow, according to experts.

Will Motorola be among them?

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