It’s that time of year again: when we give and receive presents, eat and drink far more than is good for us, and look forward to a new year of exciting technological innovation.

While we can’t help you with the first two, we’ve got a few ideas about next year’s tech launches. As we’ve seen in the previous pages, we’ve been spoilt for choice with 2011’s fantastic products. The iPad 2 showed that Apple continues to rule the roost in the tablet market, while the iPhone 4S and its Siri technology showed the company is still just as interested in innovation as it is in producing great-looking products.

As for 2012, here’s a run-down of what we think will be making the news.

Patent watching

In a recent biography, Steve Jobs claimed to have cracked the perfect television

Notoriously futuristic and exciting, the number of Apple patents that actually find their way into real, shipping products is rather small. It’s almost as though Apple’s motto is: “If in doubt, patent.”

We’ll look at the company’s latest patents anyway, because they’re so interesting. Many of them appear to revolve around new gestures for accessing features integrated into iPhones and iPads, and some of those don’t even need your fingers to work.

Custom gestures

If patent applications are to be used as a guide, Apple appears to be working on new ways to use modifiable gestures in order to accomplish on-screen tasks. Imagine drawing a cross mark with your finger as a way of accepting an option or giving the okay for an action to take place. Such a move could mean that future Apple products (iPad 3, perhaps?) could potentially do away with conventional on-screen dialog boxes – and we all know how Apple likes to re-invent the wheel.

A recent patent application suggests that Apple is working on bringing ‘virtual SIM cards’ to its smartphones, doing away with the little pieces of plastic that currently reside inside our iPhones. The benefits could, however, go further than simply making it easier for phone users to switch carriers, with the space saved by removing the SIM card tray, possibly allowing Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design Jonathan Ive to make yet smaller iPhones. After all, if less room is needed inside a device, then smaller handsets will be possible, and we all know how Apple likes to make things thinner, lighter and smaller.

One of the longest-running rumours concerning Apple is that the Cupertino boffins have been working on an Apple television. There appears to be plenty of positive evidence coming from the US Patent Office, which is helping to add fuel to the fire. For example, a patent granted last June showed an Apple ‘Widget Synchronizer’ that included the TV as a gadget you would sync to.

In this Apple patent, users are shown ‘pouring’ content from an iPhone on to an iPad

Whether Apple should be entering a market that’s already highly competitive remains to be seen, and
it’s fair to say any Apple-branded TV wouldn’t be cheap. Nevertheless, we think it’s possible we could see one at some point in the not too distant future. Especially since Apple’s Steve Jobs told his biographer that he’d been working on an Apple television and had “finally cracked it”. Added to that, rumours have emerged
that Apple is working with Sharp to build this ‘iTV’ in Japan this February.

Now that iOS 5 has made its way on to iPhones and iPads the world over, and with Apple launching its iCloud service, the idea of keeping all your music and video in remote servers would gel perfectly with an always-connected television.

That said, Apple would need to add more value than simply streaming video to make people buy a new television from Apple rather than an established TV brand. Could it bring Siri to the big screen? Seamless synchronisation of content was also mentioned in the Steve Jobs biography – a nod perhaps towards the company’s iCloud and its potential growth into something more than it is today.

More established television manufacturers are clamouring to make their sets more internet-ready these days, too. Samsung, Panasonic and Sony, to name but a few, are adding widgets, apps, Skype and anything else they can lay their hands on to their new lines of televisions. Whether anyone actually uses these ‘added-value’ products is debatable, but it’s competition that Apple would need to consider should it decide to enter a market that already contains a healthy dose of big players.

Perhaps Apple’s successes with the iTunes Store will benefit the company in unforeseen ways. It may already have many of the contacts necessary to do content deals with production companies and TV channels; this would enable it to provide content to viewers that will compete with - or complement - the likes of Sky and Virgin. In the future we may subscribe to TV channels as apps that give us access to both archives and current content whenever we want it. You’ll never need to buy a TV guide again.

The future of Siri

Currently only available on the iPhone 4S, Siri is Apple’s latest move to differentiate its handset from the competition. It’s also proving to be a big hit with Apple fans and non-techies alike. Could Siri make it to the Mac in OS X 10.8? Is that Star Trek moment upon us?

Voice control doesn’t stop at the ability to help send messages and make appointments. The added dictation feature lets a user dictate almost anything. Twitter status updates, Facebook posts or indeed anything that would normally require typing can now simply be spoken, with the iPhone doing all the hard work for you. It’s surprisingly accurate, depending on your accent, and has the potential to kill the keyboard should users take to the concept. It could have real impact on the desktop if that’s where Apple chooses to go.

It’s not just Apple that’s banking on the power of our voices, either. Microsoft is currently beta-testing a new software update for its Xbox 360 gaming console. Utilising the power of Xbox Kinect, the company is bringing voice-controlled TV and movie viewing to the masses, and it’s happening soon. That Apple television with Siri isn’t quite looking so far-fetched now, is it?

Head in the iCloud

Apple is embracing the of the cloud with its iCloud service

Another booming industry is the cloud. Apple has obviously gatecrashed this particular party with iCloud, so it’s easy to forget that there are already some well-established players.

Dropbox, Box.net, Amazon and Google are already fighting it out, though there are key differences between them that could make room for more than one winner. Online backup is fast becoming something that’s no longer something just for geeks or the security-paranoid, with services such as Carbonite and Mozy offering ways to keep all your data safe and sound off-site, on their remote servers.

Apple will be considering this possibility as well. The only real issue with this race to the cloud is that here in the UK we have pretty poor upload speeds. Hopefully the ISPs will be pushed to improve this as people demand faster uploads.

One thing is certain: our growing reliance on smartphones and stellar iPad sales both point to us all needing some way of carrying our data around with us. Whether it’s synced across multiple devices, which is the Dropbox way, or made available for download from anywhere, like iCloud, that need is only going to grow. We can expect to see changes across some of the established cloud companies as they scramble to deflect the Apple iCloud effect, but don’t expect them to go away.

4G or not 4G

If we are indeed going to become ever more reliant on the cloud and internet-based storage, we’re going to need faster connectivity, not just at home but also when out and about.

The current state of mobile data in the UK is an interesting one. With five major players in the mobile space, and others living off their networks, choice is one thing we are blessed with. Just ask our friends across the pond, who have a limited selection: AT&T and Verizon almost have the US market sown up.

While 3G connectivity is still iffy if you happen to live in the wrong part of the UK, for the most part you can be fairly confident of getting a reasonable 3G signal, with middling-to-good download speeds.

But what about 4G? Carriers are now beginning to make a fuss about what we call faux-G, a play on words that actually describes the situation rather well. HSPA+ is the technology in question, and US carriers have taken to calling it a 4G network, although it is more accurate to call it 3.5G.

With countless Android-powered smartphones and tablets jumping on to the 4G bandwagon in the US, the scramble for increased mobile data speeds in the UK hasn’t been so ferocious. This is mainly because the UK government hasn’t yet auctioned off its 4G licences, and until it does we won’t benefit from the faster speeds. This auction should, however, take place in the first quarter of 2012.

So will Apple’s next iPhone offer 4G? We’re not convinced. With the company’s track record – it opted for a 2G radio in the original iPhone because of battery concerns – it’s likely we’ll be waiting a little longer.

TV times

One product that seems to have a debatable future is the Apple TV. It hasn’t been touted during the company’s recent earnings reports, so we can only assume that sales have been lacklustre. With this in mind, what’s around the corner for the little black box?

Featuring its own iTunes-branded angle to the pay-per-view TV model, the Apple TV is also fast becoming the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch’s gateway to your television. The introduction of AirPlay has seen various developers taking advantage of the technology by allowing games and apps to be displayed on the big screen, with the iOS device used as a controller. Could Apple’s future include an Apple TV as a games console of sorts? If that is to be the case, 2012 could be the year Apple puts the plan into action.

All this is made possible thanks to the dual-core power of Apple’s A5 processor, giving the iPhone 4S and iPad 2 the horsepower to make top-notch mobile gaming a reality on Apple’s mobile platform. Being able to play multiplayer games over AirPlay, right to an Apple TV and big-screen television, also gives iOS an edge over the competition. If Apple does indeed have a television in the works, it’s likely the Apple TV will evolve into this device, rather than exist independently.

Social networking

Apple’s various entries into the world of social networks have to go down as downright failures. Ping in iTunes and Game Center on iOS have proven mediocre at best, with the former almost consigned to the scrap heap as soon as it was made public.

The big boys, Twitter and Facebook, will no doubt continue to grow over the coming year, but Twitter’s recent integration into the fabric of iOS 5 and thus every iPad, iPhone and iPod touch sold, could well prove a masterstroke for the company. It’s already reported a huge increase in new accounts being created since iOS 5 was made available in early October.

With such growth in new users for Twitter, how long will it be before Facebook wants in on the action? After a spat relating to Facebook integration in Ping, relations between the two Silicon Valley powerhouses are said to be strained, but as always, money talks. Facebook may be too big a company to ignore if it continues to improve on its 800 million users.

Tablet wars

If there’s one thing that’s a given in 2012, it’s increased competition within the tablet market. Up until now Apple has led the field. Yes, Motorola and Samsung have made efforts to cut the iPad’s lead, and HTC has even got in on the act alongside a host of no-name outfits, but how many have they sold?

With Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich release set to amalgamate the smartphone and tablet, Google’s operating system could provide real competition.

Another company to look out for is Microsoft, which is set to release its first Windows 8 tablets. One of the company’s key strategies is ensuring this is a success, and Apple would be well advised to keep an eye on what its Redmond-based competitor is up to.

Microsoft is also looking to make headway in the smartphone market, and is hoping that its recent deal with Nokia will help put it on the path to success. The first Windows Phone 7 devices are available now. The iPhone 4S is still selling faster than any other smartphone, but it would be naive of Apple to think that Microsoft, and indeed Google, will not be strong throughout 2012.

There’s a legal slant to proceedings as well. Samsung and Apple are currently locked in a series of ferocious battles over both tablet and smartphone patents. Both seem to be hell-bent on destroying the other, and it’s a fair bet that these clashes will continue to hit the headlines throughout 2012.

Challenges ahead

You don’t have to look much further than the recent boardroom upheaval at Apple in order to see where the company’s challenges lie over the course of the next year. The loss of Apple’s co-founder, CEO and talisman, Steve Jobs, will leave a huge dent in the company’s universe. In Tim Cook, it has a strong hand at the helm, but whether he has the vision and ability to spot a winning product remains to be seen.

On the plus side, he has a team around him that has proven itself to be more than capable over the past three years, and Apple is by no means a one-man band. With so many competitors looking to take a slice of the Apple pie in the smartphone and tablet markets, it’s perhaps ironic that Apple’s biggest threat could well be from within, as the team tries to fill the void left by the death of Jobs.

This year may well have been mapped out before Jobs left Apple, which means 2013 and beyond will be the real acid test for the team he left behind. It will be interesting to see what direction the company takes.