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Steve Jobs' legacy and the tech lessons of 2011

So what did we learn about the technology biz this year? From the passing of Apple's co-founder to a new generation of publicly traded companies...plenty.

Steve Jobs at the unveiling of the iPad 2 in March of this year.
Steve Jobs at the unveiling of the iPad 2 in March of this year. James Martin/CNET

We learned a few things in 2011 about the industry Steve Jobs left behind.

We learned that tech is more resilient, more dynamic than the overall economy. OK, maybe we already knew that, but it's a lesson that was certainly reinforced. We learned that innovation has truly passed from the desktop to what fits in your hand. And we learned those folks at Sun Microsystems were right, if more than a few years too early: The network really is the computer; we just call it the cloud now. And your data, your music, and your life are moving there.

Most importantly, we learned the high-tech world can take a step back and reflect when a true pioneer dies. On Oct. 5, we received word that Jobs, Apple's co-founder, a man who had a turn-everything-on-its-head impact on three industries (or more), died from the pancreatic cancer he had fought for years. You can't overstate Jobs' impact on the tech market; hell, on America. He was the Henry Ford of the microprocessor, a master craftsman, an obsessive devotee to detail and a belief that people want quality. Forced out of the company he founded only to return a few years later to save it, he also proved that in business there can be, in fact, the occasional second act.

So what else did we learn this year? We feared the specter of public venture capital; that's when mediocre outfits conduct an initial public offering so they can get enough money to stay in business. But investors proved a lot savvier than we gave them credit: Companies with strong prospects, like LinkedIn, were welcomed to the public markets. Others, like Zynga? Not so much. At least not so far.

We learned that patents and the lawyers who understand them are more important than ever, especially if you have a few billion dollars, like Apple and its friends, to buy big stacks of patents from failing older companies. Google doesn't have a big stack of patents, so it spent $12.5 billion to buy them through the planned acquisition of Motorola Mobility.

Those billions that companies are spending to buy patents and litigate for and against them? That's billions that could be spent on on new factories, research and development, or shareholder dividends. That's billions that are making tech entrepreneurs and the investors behind them sweat bullets every time they add a new, potentially lawsuit-inducing feature.

Still don't think 2012 should be the year of patent reform?

Speaking of entrepreneurs, it was a great year to have a new idea, or even an old idea if you were a new entrepreneur. Tech venture investing was on track to be at its highest level in a decade. Guys like Dave McClure were spreading the money far and wide, while others like Sean Parker (personally, I'd be flattered if Justin Timberlake played me in a movie) warned that no good will come of such promiscuous funding.

Who's right? Bet we find out next year.

Here's another lesson: It turns out AT&T still can get federal regulators riled up when it tries to buy a direct competitor like T-Mobile. We learned that Google can get federal regulators riled up when it tries to do, well, just about anything. And execs there pine for the days when they were successfully invading new market niches and drawing the ire of the Justice Department?

Probably a lot more of the latter than the former.

What did we learn about Jobs' legacy? Let's start with noting that Jobs' company and the industry he helped create somehow defied the global economic funk (at least for now). Despite bad end-of-year news from Oracle and supply concerns for Intel, tech still looks strong, even as the rest of the American economy is stuck in first gear, as protesters on both ends of the political spectrum target banking plutocrats in New York and their feckless political allies in Washington D.C. (who appear to be more inept by the day), and as the European debt crisis has reminded us that southern Europe is a wonderful place to visit--since no one seems to be working very hard.

Whew, that was a run-on rant.

While protesters in the US railed against the 1 percent, protesters in the Middle East had a new tool: social media. Inevitable? Perhaps. Now repressive regimes don't just shut the newspapers and gather up the dissidents: They cut off Facebook and Twitter and mobile networks.

So anyway, there were solid new tech products and there were some duds in 2011. We loved the new Kindle Fire and the iPad 2, and we mocked the Playbook. New, fierce rivalries like Twitter and Facebookemerged while old ones like Oracle and Hewlett-Packard got downright litigious. And yes, there were disasters. Netflix, Research in Motion, and HP reminded us that even the best of companies can run off the rails, fast.

Yet Jobs' death loomed over the year in tech. He reminded us that no matter how successful and how wealthy a man or his business become, we are all, in the end, vulnerable. Apple is the most valuable tech company in the world, and was briefly the most valuable company, period. It released another round of successful products, it continued to open new stores, including a new location in New York's Grand Central Terminal, and it announced plans to build a giant, new Silicon Valley headquarters that looks like Pentagon with the angles shaved off.

Jobs remains a cipher. Despite days of television and Internet commentary, an endless stream of stories and a best-selling, authorized biography that showed the man, warts and all, we're no closer to truly understanding what made Jobs tick at the end of 2011 than we were in 1976, when he and his buddy Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer. Genius or jerk? Tech and cultural visionary or just a very savvy businessman? All of the above? For all the detail of famed biographer Walter Isaacson's Jobs book, he never reached the insight of his Albert Einstein biography: Einstein searched for God in the mathematical laws of the universe.

Are all people who achieve big things driven by something so profound? Who knows. But it's a lot more interesting to write about tech entrepreneurs than people on Wall Street.