From the continuing rise of tablet devices to the daily-deals craze and the return of the Internet IPO, 2011 has been a transformative year for technology.
The pace of change has become blisteringly fast, with traditional industries -- bookstores, video-rental chains, newspapers -- crumbling more quickly than we could have imagined.
Predicting what will happen in 2012, therefore, is a shot in the dark: A year is virtually a lifetime in the digital era. And yet we can at least make a guess at what will happen in the early part of next year simply by looking at the trends that are shaping the latter half of this year.
Here's my best estimate of some of the innovation we'll see in 2012:
1. Touch computing
New input methods will be the dominant trend of 2012. Tablet computers such as the iPad might seem like a nice alternative to desktop and laptop computers, but I believe they're more than that: They're replacements. Just as the command line (remember that?) gave way to graphical user interfaces, so the mouse will be superseded by touchscreens.
The signs are obvious: Windows 8 and Mac OS X Lion, the latest desktop operating systems, borrow heavy from their mobile counterparts. These new interfaces essentially impose a touchscreen-inspired interface over the traditional desktop environment.
Over time, this half-step will become a whole one, and mobile operating systems will dominate. The transition won't be complete by the end of 2012, but we'll be much further down the path, and using computer mice much less often.
2. Social gestures
In the social media realm, social gestures appear to be the leading trend of 2012. Launched by Facebook in September, this so-called "frictionless sharing" functionality removes the need to click a button to share media with your friends. Instead, everything you listen to, read or watch is automatically posted to your profile once you approve the relevant app.
If you've seen apps such as Spotify or Social Reader in your Facebook news feed, you're already aware of these features.
The trend makes sense for social networks: With 800 million people already on Facebook, its growth is bound to slow. But if sharing becomes automatic, the volume of content on Facebook will grow at an accelerated pace. There's a big problem, however: Users may be "creeped out" by all this automated sharing of their Web activity and grow suspicious of the apps using it.
3. NFC and mobile payments
Next year is likely to be the year when mobile payments blossom. While we've seen a great deal of innovation in mobile payments technology this year -- including the success of Square's iPhone dongle, allowing anyone to accept credit card payments -- 2012 is the year of NFC.
What's that, you ask? Near Field Communication essentially lets you replace your credit cards with your phone: Wave an NFC-enabled phone near the credit card reader in a store (or taxi cab), and the money is deducted from your account.
4. Beyond the iPad
If touch computing is the future, then the iPad is surely king. And yet the iPad came up against serious competition in the latter part of 2011: As I wrote previously, I expect the new Amazon Kindle Fire to outsell the iPad in 2012. Why? Simply put, the iPad costs $499 while the Fire costs $199.
Amazon's advantages don't stop at the price point, however: The company owns an entire content store of movies, e-books, TV shows and other media. With tablet devices, the hardware is somewhat important but the content available for the device is absolutely critical: With plenty of media available for the Fire right away, it's an appealing proposition.
Why does one device constitute an entire trend? Well, as a true competitor to the iPad emerges, content producers, distributors and even app developers may have an entirely new platform on which to push their wares. (And yes, the Kindle Fire does indeed run Google's Android operating system, but Amazon's version is so unlike other Android tablets that neither users nor app developers will perceive it as "yet another Android device" -- it's a whole new platform.)