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2011 In Review: Mobile

Android and Amazon mount a serious challenge to Apple's dominance, as the rest of the industry gets green eyes for mobile

Apple began the year as the single most influential force in mobile gaming, and the launch of the iPad 2 only reinforced that position. Sleeker, lighter and "nine times" more powerful than its predecessor, developers lined up to praise the opportunities Apple's new hardware presented, with Epic's Mark Rein first in the queue.

"More CPU means potentially more physics, more enemies on the screen, a wider view of the environment. It's just really fantastic," he enthused. "And our engine is uniquely sorted to go from everything from iPhone 3GS to all the way beyond anything you can build today."

Epic's enthusiasm was indicative of the entire industry, but no traditional developer was better positioned to fly the flag for mobile. At GDC it laid out plans to make the next iteration of the Unreal Engine with cross-platform development in mind, in June it revealed the full extent of Infinity Blade's success, and when Apple was ready to unveil the iPhone 4S to the world, Epic was right there on stage with Infinity Blade 2.

With a gaming device now in every pocket, the industry came to see mobile as perhaps the most important market for the future

There were other tablets, of course, but you'd be forgiven for not noticing. Blackberry, Motorola, HP and Sony all launched tablet devices, with results ranging from disastrous to acceptable, but Apple's iPad dominated to such a degree that it seemed to be operating in a market of one.

A convincing challenger did eventually emerge, but not until the year's closing weeks: Amazon's game-friendly Kindle Fire, which has been experiencing iPad levels of demand in the run up to Christmas, and has the added bonus of Amazon's retail ecosystem, which contains the credit-card information of more than 150 million people.

In the broader market, Apple's dominance was steadily eroded by the meteoric rise of Android. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 was widely praised in terms of usability - particularly the Mango 7.5 update, which would be partially repurposed for the recent Xbox Live dashboard overhaul - but Google's open source OS proliferated at an alarming rate. All it needs now is an infrastructure to rival Apple's, but survey after survey suggested that the pieces are beginning to fall into place.

But rather than the year of the tablet, or the year of the iPad, or even the year of Android, for mobile 2011 was a year defined by consolidation. The real story behind the rise of Android is the rise in the sheer number of game-ready handsets. The iPhone continued to sell in fantastic amounts, but somehow Samsung managed to sell even more.

With a gaming device now in almost every pocket, leading figures from all over the industry came to see mobile as perhaps the most important market for the future. Social companies like Crowdstar and Zynga made no secret of their desire to break free from networks like Facebook, with mobile the ultimate destination. And even Facebook itself made confident strides towards mobile with its 'Project Spartan' HTML5 development platform, and strong rumours of a Facebook-branded smartphone.

Taken alongside the traditional industry's wholesale embrace of mobile development, and the influx of AAA talent to mobile as console studios continued to struggle, in years to come there may be no need to consider mobile as a separate entity. That's one less article to write, at least.

The Biggest Stories Of 2011: Social

Google acquires Motorola: At an estimated $12.5 billion in cash, Google's acquisition of Motorola was the most valuable deal in the mobile market in 2011 by a comfortable margin. More than that, though, it was a clear indication of Google's desire to allow Android's rapid growth to continue unabated; as much about the acquisition of Motorola's extensive patent library as any products or expertise at the company itself. On the day the news broke, Google CEO Larry Page published an article on the company's blog calling out Microsoft and Apple, among others, for joining forces in "anti-competitive patent attacks" to halt Android's rise. The Motorola deal effectively put an end to that, leaving the way clear for Google's OS to become a major new venue for mobile gaming.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011: The torrent of creativity sparked by Steve Jobs' return to Apple in 1996 helped usher in a new era of gaming. The iPhone, the iPad and the App Store were central to the shift in the way the industry views the development, distribution and consumption of its products, and Jobs was the architect of it all. However, while the industry readily acknowledges Jobs' influence, it's worth remembering that games were never an explicit part of Apple's plan until the success of iOS as a platform for gaming became impossible to ignore. How Apple will continue without a figure of Jobs' genius is difficult to predict, but it will do so with games as a key part of its strategy.

Mobile is killing the console: Forgive the sensationalist headline, but a trip through the archives for 2011 reveals diverse group of industry figures forecasting the imminent demise of consoles under a relentless cascade of bargain-priced smartphone games. Mobile Pie , Rovio, ngmoco and PopCap all made the case, but even those on the console side couldn't resist a little scaremongering. id Software's John Carmack weighed in twice, giving consoles two years before their technology is surpassed if not replaced altogether, while Epic's Mike Capps extolled the lethal potential of the 99c app. It may all be a storm in a tea-cup, but in 2011 mobile gaming gave console companies serious cause for concern.

Nintendo takes a stand: In a year when Microsoft and Sony made clear commitments to mobile, Nintendo baffled the industry by speaking out against the rise of mobile gaming in the most public manner possible: first, Reggie Fils-Aime warned the Game Trailers TV audience that cheap mobile games were "one of the biggest risks today in our industry"; shortly after, Satoru Iwata used his keynote address at GDC to claim that "game development is drowning" in mobile and social products. The response from the industry at large was swift, with no less a figure than Phil Harrison calling Iwata's view of these emerging markets "wrong." It was an apt start to a year in which Nintendo would look increasingly out-of-step with the times.

Sony buys out Ericsson: The year began with widespread discussion of the 'PlayStation Phone' - a partnership between Sony's PlayStation brand and Sony Ericsson's handset technology. The result was the Xperia Play, which launched in April to a decidedly lukewarm reception from both consumers and critics, and subsequently dropped from the radar altogether. However, any doubts over Sony's commitment to the mobile market were obliterated by the €1.05 billion acquisition of its Swedish partner. Sony CEO Howard Stringer placed the deal in the context of a "four screen strategy" that includes smartphones, laptops, tablets and televisions. For a company in Sony's position, this was a brave and potentially vital deal.

Product Of The Year: Angry Birds

Angry Birds started 2011 on top, but few would have predicted the astonishing growth of the last 12 months. 600 million downloads, 30 million DAUs, $100 million in revenue; the figures are undeniably impressive, but Rovio has made the scale of its ambitions abundantly clear. A company executive placed the company's valuation "north of PopCap" all the way back in July, and recently CMO Peter Vesterbacka went even further, describing a goal to turn Rovio into another Disney. Is it all hot air? Perhaps, but next year's Hong Kong IPO is likely to confirm Rovio as a billion dollar company, which makes Angry Birds mobile gaming's first billion dollar IP.

Company Of The Year: DeNA

Until its acquisition of ngmoco in October 2010, DeNA was not widely known outside of its native Japan. This year, however, the mobile gaming giant has never been far from the headlines, acquiring studios in Vietnam and Chile, opening a subsidiary in Singapore, and rolling out its Mobage mobile-social gaming platform across the English-speaking world. The company's recent financial performance has been uneven, but DeNA is expanding with real purpose and excellent taste - 2011 also saw it ink content deals with some of the biggest names in Japanese development.

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.