Come 2012, we will be a mere three years and 10 months away from the events of the movie Back to the Future II. Frankly, there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and then. Nike (NYSE:NKE) still needs to make shoes that can actually tie themselves (the Air Mags announced in September certainly don’t count.) Mattel (NASDAQ:MAT) needs to manufacture skateboards that hover. AT&T (NYSE:T) needs to start making phone booths for video calls. Fax machines need to become relevant again. And flying cars need to become common.
Actually, at this point, the only thing from that movie’s future that seems likely is a new Jaws flick with 3D graphics.
So technology isn’t necessarily up to par with Robert Zemeckis’ terrifying commercial vision. That doesn’t mean 2011 hasn’t left us feeling like we live in the future. The technology industry has released some wildly exciting goods this year. Here are four of the top consumer tech innovations of 2011:
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is many things, but innovative is not one of them. Really. Tablet PCs existed before the iPad. Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) enjoyed brisk business with its BlackBerry smartphones before the iPhone. Nintendo did touchscreens years before the iPod Touch. What Apple does excel at is transforming existing technology into desirable cultural commodities.
Its virtual personal assistant in the iPhone 4S, Siri, is likely to do for voice recognition apps what the iPod did for MP3 players. That is to say, expect voice recognition to be a key feature in gadgets of every stripe by the time 2015 rolls around. Expect Siri to be a brand that survives until then, too.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire
It’s still the early days for Amazon‘s (NASDAQ:AMZN) new $200 tablet, but buzz and strong sales during the holiday period indicate that the world’s biggest online retailer has, if not an iPad killer, at least a real iPad competitor on its hands. Why the Amazon Kindle Fire makes our list of innovations, however, is more to do with Amazon’s business model than the device itself.
Whereas Apple’s iPad is a capable computing device that can be used as a work tool in multiple industries, the Kindle Fire is little more than a portal to Amazon’s many retail operations, both physical and digital. It is the machine that puts the Amazon Prime premium subscription business (with its streaming video), its Kindle e-book business, its digital music sales and its by-mail retail business in the palms of users. The entertainment device and catalog are finally a single object — all sold at a low, consumer-friendly price. Genius.
Microsoft’s Xbox TV
Mark this one down as having great potential, but not necessarily the success just yet. Starting this week, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox 360 owners can access live television content from a number of cable providers. This means Comcast Xfinity and Verizon FiOS subscribers can view a number of channels directly through the Xbox rather than through a separate set-top box for their TV.
Microsoft’s service could become the future model of premium television services, putting streaming video options like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), digital storefronts like Zune and traditional cable television all in one machine. Others have played at this, but Microsoft might have the real deal.
Activision’s Call of Duty Elite
Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) has had a rough time getting the Call of Duty Elite premium subscription service off the ground. COD Elite is a for-pay social network that tracks stats for players of the company’s massively popular Call of Duty video games, as well as gives access to add-on content to those games. Despite access problems since its Nov. 8 opening, more than 1 million people signed up for the $50-per-year service in its first week.
The service makes this list for reasons similar to Amazon’s Kindle Fire — it is an entirely new business model for what originally was a retail-only product. ATVI has successfully melded the revenue stream of subscription-based persistent games like World of Warcraft with a popular annual retail event. Call of Duty is becoming an international pastime rather than a product.
As of this writing, Anthony John Agnello did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned stocks. Follow him on Twitter at @ajohnagnello and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. Check out InvestorPlace.com’s other looks back at 2011 and ahead to 2012 here.