10 Things You Should Have Bought In 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Holiday shopping in 2011 is a good time to stock up on the year's hottest items, but if you really wanted a webOS device, a Canadian e-reader or a seat for a first-run Harry Potter film, you're out of luck.

This year marked the end of the line for a lot of popular brands, gadgets, vehicles and American cultural icons. Simple routines such as getting groceries, watching afternoon television or even mailing in a bill just won't be the same without some of the items that didn't make it out of 2011, but the bigger-ticket items have even broader implications for the buying public. Americans who have just finished gorging themselves at the holiday consumer trough and contributing billions to the greater economic good likely aren't thinking about the buys that could have been, but some of the best items of the year amounted to background noise by the time Black Friday rolled around.

We took a look back at 2011 and found 10 items that were definitely worth picking up this year, if only because they won't be making it to 2012:

 

A Borders Kobo e-reader

You know that big, empty store you're seeing downtown or in your local mall this holiday season? A year ago, it used to sell books, CDs, DVDs, Seattle's Best Coffee and even e-readers.

That was all before Borders Books and Music filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. It eventually had to shut roughly 400 stores when nobody stepped to buy the troubled chain, dooming many of its retail spaces to a zombified existence as Halloween pop-up stores and desolate holiday storefronts.

The fate of Borders' Kobo e-reader was a lot less clear. Branded as a Borders product, the Kobo e-reader is actually made by Canadian company Kobo Inc. Kobo also handled Borders' e-book supply, so when Borders started circling the drain, Kobo just simply rebranded the e-book store, e-readers and Apple iOS (Stock Quote: AAPL), Research In Motion (Stock Quote: RIMM) Blackberry and Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) Android apps under the Kobo name.

Unfortunately, the death of Borders and the relatively unheralded release of the Kobo Touch earlier this year dumped a monsoon rain all over Kobo's parade. As of September, research company IDC ranked Amazon's (Stock Quote: AMZN) Kindle No. 1 in worldwide market share with 51.7% of all e-readers sold. Barnes and Noble's (Stock Quote: BNS) Nook comes in with a respectable 21.2% and leaves about 27% of the estimated 27 million unit market for an ambiguous "other" including Sony (Stock Quote: SNE), Pandigital and, yes, Kobo.

It doesn't seem that Kobo's up for the fight. It supports more file formats than the Kindle and Nook, is smaller than their comparably priced devices and has a ton of expandable memory. Yet the Kobo Touch's $99 to $129 asking price is significantly more than the $79 to $109 Amazon charges for a base-model Kindle, comes with worse battery life and a base 1,000 book storage that is 2,000 volumes less than the Kindle Touch. After Kobo's $315 million sale to Japanese e-commerce company Ratuken last month, the Kobo reader may long for the good old days of being the best toy in a bankrupt toy shop.

 

 

A station wagon

When family-friendly, safety-focused Volvo's not even making wagons anymore, you know the grocery-getter is headed to the grave.

Volvo discontinued the U.S. version of the V50 for the 2012 model year after unceremoniously dumping its beloved V70 in similar fashion last year. The wagon sold less than 500 models in the U.S. in all of 2010, so its demise didn't come as a complete shock, but seeing Volvo shift focus to its XC60-XC90 crossover vehicles only drove home the wagon's dire state.

In recent years, Subaru has upsized its popular Forester and Outback -- which started out as a Legacy wagon -- to near-SUV proportions as lighter materials offered more headroom and cargo space without cutting into fuel economy. Car pricing site Edmunds.com counts 29 wagons among its offerings, but even that total fudges the truth a bit by including crossovers such as the XC70, Outback, Mitsubishi Outlander, Ford (Stock Quote: F) Flex, Kia Soul, Mini Cooper Countryman and the soon-to-be discontinued Chevrolet (Stock Quote: GM) HHR.

If the average family wants a wagon these days, they'll have to shop for one like they'd shop for a luxury car worth putting a bow on at Christmas. The most reasonably priced wagon on the market, the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen, starts at $20,000 and can get up to as much as $27,000 once a buyer throws in a diesel engine and a sunroof. The remaining offerings include a Toyota (Stock Quote: TM) Prius v wagon with a more than $26,000 MSRP and wagons from Audi, Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz that have $30,000 to $58,000 price tags worthy of their luxury marques.

While they're no longer the middle-class markers they were in the 1970s and 1980s, there are still grocery-getting wagons out there. They're just stocked with organic produce instead of PB&J supplies and being driven by the help instead of homemakers.

 

A Flip video camera

Seriously, if you still own a feature phone, listen to an MP3 player, play games on a Nintendo 3DS or Sony PSP and use an e-reader, you should have considered a Flip video camera.

Nothing shy of amazing when it started recording high-definition images back in 2008, the Flip Video and its trademark little red button helped bring HD to the masses and changed the quality of nearly every news site video clip and YouTube video meme of the past three years. Flip Video's impact was so strong that it convinced Cisco (Stock Quote: CSCO) to buy the technology from parent company Pure Digital for $590 million in 2009.

It didn't take long for the smartphone market to present Cisco with a crystal clear case for buyer's remorse. Samsung, HTC, Motorola (Stock Quote: MOT) and Apple started equipping their Web-browsing, app-downloading, book-reading, game-playing smartphones with HD cameras within the year, suddenly making the $149 to $199 Flip Video commanded for its one feature seem exorbitant by comparison. Though Apple wouldn't put a 1080p full HD camera in its iPhone until the iPhone 4S launched in October, it was already too late for the poor one-dimensional Flip.

Cisco shut down its Flip Video business in April as it withdrew from portions of its consumer business. This means little to folks who see a data plan as a small price to pay for an HD video feature or iPod Touch owners who want more to play with than just an HD camera, but American consumers who aren't fond of payment plans and prefer their technology a la carte lost their most user-friendly option for HD video when flip faded to black. Nothing shy of amazing when it started recording high-definition images back in 2008, the Flip Video and its trademark little red button helped bring HD to the masses and changed the quality of nearly every news site video clip and YouTube video meme of the past three years. Flip Video's impact was so strong that it convinced Cisco to buy the technology from parent company Pure Digital for $590 million in 2009.

 

 

Tickets to a space shuttle launch

If you thought America won the space race, history just proved that race was a marathon, not a sprint.

In a world where people nearly 40 years old have never seen a man walk on the moon, perhaps it's not surprising that the passion for rocketing people into space isn't all it once was. Back in 1972, the same year the U.S. was completing its last lunar mission, the Nixon administration launched a plan that would build not only space shuttles, but a shuttle station that would help bring humans to Mars.

That red planet landing never happened, but the shuttles helped put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and open up the universe to human eyes, build an International Space Station that will still be a base of operations for NASA and other space programs and has spun off nearly 2,000 everyday technologies, including mobile phone cameras, home insulation, increasingly durable tires and the artificial heart.

The downside was that the program was costing Americans seven cents per person per day, according to the Obama administration, and nearly $210 billion in total. The loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew during takeoff in 1986 -- in front of a generation of school students waiting for Christa McAuliffe to become the first teacher in space -- and the disintegration of Columbia in 2003 during reentry also tested the American public's resolve to deal with the human toll of space flight.

The Russian Soyuz program now takes over as space exploration's top dog and serves as the most likely means of taking passengers to and from the International Space Station for the foreseeable future. While Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic vows to make suborbital space flight available for a cost and Boeing is preparing a commercial space capsule, paid trips into space are still the domain of the Russians and their super-rich Space Adventures passengers.

If you still want to see the space shuttle, you'll have to ground your expectations. The Atlantis will be on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Endeavor, meanwhile, will be retiring at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The Discovery will be class-trip fodder at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it will bump the test shuttle Enterprise as the star attraction.

 

 

A Ford Ranger

Why is it always the good ones that have to go?

Let's make this perfectly clear: Ford's little pickup that could didn't have this coming. As of November, the Ranger (64,114 out the door year-to-date) had outsold Ford's midsized Taurus (57,876), its dead-car-rolling full-sized Crown Victoria (45,932), its wannabe Mini crossover Flex (25,175) and its oversized 2000s SUV leftover Expedition (36,287).

No, the Ranger's being taken out of commission because a company that pats itself on the back for not taking a buyout and touts the technology in its small Fiesta and Fusion vehicles couldn't figure out how to meet new government standards without incurring huge costs for updates. Maybe if Ford had updated it at some point since 1998, when the little pickup had its last major overhaul, it wouldn't have been so costly and wouldn't have fallen behind such competitors as the Toyota Tacoma, Honda (Stock Quote: HMC) Ridgeline, Nissan (Stock Quote: NSANY) Frontier and Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon.

Ford never brought its Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) SYNC hands-free system over to the Ranger, never gave it the Work Solutions system with its contractor-friendly navigation, inventory, remote-office-access and vehicle-tracking apps and never gave it the size or room of the Tacoma and Frontier. Despite Ford's attempts to starve this vehicle to death, drivers never stopped loving it. It's just a shame its producer can't say the same.

 

 

 

 

A Chevrolet HHR

Hey, remember when retro-style cars were something people actually bought no matter how small or somewhat silly looking they were?

Chevy doesn't either, which is why the old-school "heritage high roof" surf wagon faded into history earlier this year. The HHR took its cues from the 1949 Chevy Suburban and was just about as relevant for much of its run. The first HHR rolled off the line a full half-decade after the similarly designed Chrysler PT Cruiser and eight years after Volkswagen's New Beetle and Plymouth's Prowler launched the vintage look in the late '90s.

Though four-wheeled wayback machines including the Dodge Charger and Challenger, Ford Thunderbird, Mini Cooper and new Fiat 500 would follow, the HHR wasn't drowned in a flood of nostalgia but overtaken by younger, more tech-savvy competition. The Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Honda Element and the whole Scion line tapped into even the older markets that the HHR and its ilk were trying to reach by giving them somewhere to store their stuff with plenty of room to spread out.

The HHR was on the clock as early as last year, when the last PT Cruiser rolled out of the factory and the retro-car market got a whole lot more compact. The Mini and Fiat have fed off nostalgia while planting their features firmly in the 21st Century. The sloping roof of and tight squeeze of the HHR only offered it a clear road into history alongside the vehicles that inspired it.

 

 

An Oprah Winfrey Show ticket

The one thing Ferris Bueller didn't do during his super-suburban-touristy trip to Chicago was get tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which began its run in 1986 around the same time that Ferris' Bueller's Day Off hit theaters.

After 25 seasons and 4,561 episodes, The Oprah Winfrey Show and its Harpo Studios were not only a huge Chicago attraction, but arguably its biggest export since the stockyards shut down. By the time Winfrey brought the show to a close in May, it had not only become a pillar of American pop culture, but the foundation for an empire that produced Broadway musicals, films including Beloved and Precious, a radio station on Sirius-XM (Stock Quote: SIRI), its own monthly magazine and, this year, The Oprah Winfrey Network joint venture with Discovery Communications (Stock Quote: DISCA).

For better or worse, the television world would be without celebrity chef Rachael Ray, TV shrink Dr. Phil McGraw and midday medicine man Dr. Mehmet Oz. She could get Americans to read John Steinbeck's East of Eden and could turn literary malfeasance such as that committed by James Frey's A Million Little Pieces into a national scandal. She could make viewers care as much about underprivileged girls in South Africa as they did about Tom Cruise's treatment of her studio couch.

Most tellingly, when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was looking for a voice to comfort Americans in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he chose Winfrey as the one unifying figure who could lead a service at Yankee Stadium. Though her endorsement of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign didn't sit well in certain circles, Oprah Winfrey and her show were the closest an oft-divided America could come to a consensus about anything in its popular culture.

 

 

 

A Harry Potter ticket

Sorry, folks, but Hogwarts is closed.

We realize there are millions of copies of the seven Harry Potter books out there, millions more of the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the eight Harry Potter films, countless games going back to Sony's original PlayStation and a whole Harry Potter world replete with witches and butterbeer at Universal Studios theme parks. That doesn't change the fact that the first-run movies are done and the gravy train that left from Platform 9¾ at King's Cross has made its last run.

But boy, did they know how to go out. After Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was released in July, it brought in more than $1.3 billion at the box office. That makes it the highest-grossing film of 2011 by more than $200 million and the third-highest-grossing film of all time behind Avatar and Titanic, which makes James Cameron a more formidable Potter foe than Voldemort.

Still, the $7.7 billion brought in by the film franchise worldwide makes Harry Potter's box office magic as exceptional as the character himself. In the U.S. alone, the Potter series' $2.4 billion take is first among all film families. It outpaces the $1.9 billion made by the six Star Wars films and the $1.5 billion brought in by the seven Batman films made since 1989.

The cast may be old enough to buy rounds and anchor Broadways shows, but if the last Potter film was any indication, Hogwarts wizardry hasn't gotten old among its faithful, quidditch-playing followers.

 

Postal Service next-day mail

Unless you're sending out a copy of the latest X-Men movie, there won't be anything First Class about American mail next year.

The U.S. Postal Service couldn't lose money faster if it kept sticking it between the pages of junk mail coupon circulars and cramming them into apartment boxes. It lost $5.1 billion in fiscal 2011 and is on pace to lose $14 billion this year, partially because of Congress' mandate -- at the moment forwarded to a later date -- that the agency has to pre-pay $5.5 billion each year for a decade for future retiree health benefits.

In an attempt to save $20 billion by 2015, the Postal Service has been batting around ideas such as closing more offices, firing workers and ending Saturday mail delivery. The plan that's gained the most traction recently, though, involves slowing the mail by eliminating next-day service, shutting more than 250 processing facilities and saving roughly $2 billion to $3 billion.

Shrinking the postal network is going to cause some headaches for companies sending out bills and the folks still paying them by mail, but billing by mail dropped 14% from 2008 to 2010 as more people took their business online.

 

Any webOS device

The story of Palm and its Palm Pre is just about the saddest in the smartphone industry. At least until you get to the end, when it just turns into a farce.

Without getting too involved in the uglier details, let's just say that the Palm Pre was the right phone at the wrong time. It was released in 2009, two years after the iPhone, and used Palm's sweet new webOS operating system to go toe-to-toe with Apple's powerful toy. WebOS' card-shuffle multitasking was pretty sweet and routinely updates contacts, calendars and messages from various sources including Facebook, Outlook and Gmail. The Web search automatically pasted search terms into various engines, the pinching and double-tap zoom is as easy to navigate as the iPhone's and the Pre's sliding touchscreen yields to a keyboard when needed. The Pre had Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, an airplane mode, Microsoft and Mac compatibility and the voice quality of a landline phone.

Unfortunately, the Pre tried to be BlackBerry and the iPhone at once and fell just a bit shy of both. Most of the Pre's apps were holdovers from older Palm products -- in the old days, they called them PDAs -- and its newest apps were only somewhat baked. But last year, when Hewlett-Packard (Stock Quote: HPQ) bought Palm for $1.2 billion, all of that was supposed to change. WebOS would get the juiced-up H-P treatment and go on to be the next Google Android, right? Right?

Flash forward to Aug. 18, or little more than a month after H-P released the webOS-driven TouchPad tablet in the U.S. and one day after the Pre 3 phone's release in Europe. That's the day H-P announced it was going to stop making and supporting any webOS hardware whatsoever. That was great for anyone who got their hands on a $99 touchpad and later loaded a version of Google's Android onto the device. Not so much for Palm, H-P or webOS, which saw its U.S. smartphone share slide from nearly 4% last December to off the charts, according to ComScore. Nokia's Symbian OS is dying a slow, painful death worldwide, but webOS can only look at Symbian's 1.6% U.S. market share and wonder what could have been.

 

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