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The Year in Review: the biggest stories of 2012

2012 year in review lead

2012, you’ve kept us busy. Facebook went public, Apple had new leadership for the first time in decades, and apps and social services like Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Snapchat continued seeing huge growth. It's not just new devices in our homes or the hot new app out of Silicon Valley either — tech is remaking the media, political, and cultural landscape. President Obama dropped by Reddit earlier this year, the Pope joined Twitter, and we now live in a world where everything is memed to death the moment it happens. It's been a wild ride, and we've put together our take on the biggest stories of the year, the products that mattered, and the companies that just can't seem to get it together.

Where else did the year take us and what does 2013 hold in store? Read on.

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Stories of the year

Stories of the year

Microsoft: Windows 8, Phone 8, and Surface

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Microsoft has had a massive year, perhaps its biggest ever. Launches of Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 in October capped a reboot for the company, with a focus on a unified design across its products. Formerly known as Metro, Microsoft has pushed its interface to Windows, Xbox, Office, and across a number of its web properties.

The reason for Microsoft’s fresh approach? An underlying shift in the industry towards mobile computing and a consumer demand for tablets — both of which Microsoft has missed out on. 2012 was a first for Microsoft, a year in which the company unveiled its own tablet hardware — Surface. Shrouded in mystery, the tablet unveiling marked a new approach for Microsoft and will likely result in several new Surface products in 2013.

Windows 8 was billed as the savior in a post-PC world, but it's been a slow start

Windows 8 was billed as the savior for Microsoft and its OEMs in a post-PC world, but it has been a slow start for sales of new touch-enabled PCs. Shortly after its launch, former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, parted ways with Microsoft as the company pushed towards broader integration of its products and teams. Microsoft’s new way of thinking feels like a long game and Windows 8 or a derivative of it has to bring the PC industry back into health as Redmond can’t afford another 2012-style reboot.

Looking forward to 2013, it’s clear it will be the year of Xbox for Microsoft. With a next-generation console launch and other Xbox-related devices rumored, the transformation of Xbox into an entertainment brand will be largely complete next year. An Office for iOS release and improvements to Windows 8, in the form of codename Windows Blue, are also on the cards.

SOPA

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The Stop Online Piracy Act was a story in our 2011 year in review, and it became an even bigger one in 2012, as unwelcome legislative proposals unleashed a new wave of internet advocacy. SOPA — a collaborative effort between the entertainment industry and its Congressional allies — would have given the Justice Department the authority to order internet service providers and search engines to wipe foreign sites "dedicated" to copyright infringement off the map of the web. Seeing that tactic as a threat to the internet at a fundamental level, private industry and the public interest overlapped in fierce opposition to the bill; Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others placed full-page ads in newspapers, and some participated with Reddit and other online communities in a simulated internet blackout to protest the proposed legislation. It worked, and the bill was tabled by its sponsor, becoming a political landmine in the process.

SOPA woke users up to the the reality of internet regulation, and Congress to the perils of improperly vetted technology policy

The momentum gathered in the fight against SOPA helped some internet advocates push forward with an effort to establish a proactive defense of the internet. A group of those who fought SOPA, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Free Press, Fight for the Future, and other organizations collaborated to create a "Declaration of Internet Freedom" — a broadly worded set of principles calling for a free and open internet. Reddit took the cause even further, seizing John McCain’s Straight Talk Express to snake across the US between presidential debates, promoting open internet policies and boasting about its victory against SOPA. While SOPA may not reappear in the same form in plain sight, its very existence woke users up to the the reality of internet regulation, and members of Congress to the perils of improperly vetted technology policy.

Tim Cook’s first year as CEO at Apple

Replacing a legend in personal computing is no small task — particularly when that legend’s looms as large as Steve Jobs. Apple COO Tim Cook, a longtime member of Jobs’ inner circle who’d stepped into the CEO role on several occasions on an interim basis during Jobs’ health battles, took the role permanently in 2011; 2012 was his first full year at the helm.

Has Cook truly put his imprint on the company, or is this still Jobs’ baby, merely being shepherded by a shrewd captain?

Record quarters of revenue combined with the (mostly) successful launches of the iPhone 5, iPad mini, two generations of retina iPad, OS X Mountain Lion, and a slew of new MacBooks and iMacs suggest that Cook has a firm grip on day-to-day operations in Cupertino, but questions remain: has Cook truly put his imprint on the company, or is this still Jobs’ baby, merely being shepherded by a shrewd captain? And is the Apple Maps debacle — combined with the fallout in the executive ranks that ensued — a reflection on missteps in Cook’s leadership?

A flagging stock price late in the year suggests that investors still aren’t sure what to make of the Tim Cook era, but he’s not staying quiet: a recent media blitz has him positioned front and center, the new public face of perhaps the most closely-watched company in the world.

Apple-Samsung trial

Apple’s patent war against Android came to a head this year with the company’s historic billion-dollar jury verdict against Samsung. The evidence offered by the companies at trial offered an unprecedented look at the internal development processes of both companies — everything from early design studies of the iPhone and iPad to detailed Samsung comparisons of the Galaxy phones to Apple products.

After nearly three weeks of trial, the jury took just two days to deliberate and decide that Samsung had willfully infringed several of Apple’s utility and design patents on the iPhone and iOS — but not any of Apple’s design patents on the iPad. Samsung is set to appeal the decision in the coming year, but the trial itself was an important inflection point in tech history: the smartphone patent wars may soon be over.

Twitter the media company?

At the beginning of 2012, CEO Dick Costolo denied that Twitter was becoming a media company, at least in the traditional senses. His moves over the next eleven months revealed something else entirely, though: Twitter has changed significantly and has become a "broadcasting (social) network."

Twitter has become the the place to discuss live events as they happen. A big partnership with NBC for the Olympics kicked things off, but Twitter’s prominent place in the 2012 presidential election solidified Twitter’s position as the de-facto app on the second screen.

While the average user has noticed Twitter’s new media role, power users have run into a more troubling consequence of the company’s decisions: it’s no longer as open as it used to be. In August, Twitter ignited a controversy by limiting many of its third party developers, many of which helped to create Twitter's key features in the first place. Twitter's official app saw some improvement, but nowhere near the creative innovation shown in its original iPad app and in countless third party apps.

So far, despite the emergence of a for-pay competitor called App.net, it doesn’t look like Twitter’s new, restrictive rules have hurt the company at all — 2013 could well be the year it finally has its IPO and goes public.

The little carriers strike back

While 2011 was all about AT&T’s failed attempt to buy T-Mobile, 2012 was about the smaller nationals making the huge plays. In October, Sprint tied up with new corporate parent SoftBank in a deal valued at $20.1 billion, later purchasing longtime partner Clearwire outright for $2.2 billion; the SoftBank acquisition is expected to close in mid-2013, giving Japan a huge piece of the complex pie comprising the American wireless industry.

In the same month, Deutsche Telekom signed the paperwork to merge T-Mobile with MetroPCS, a deal that gives the nation’s number four carrier desperately-needed spectrum to help widely deploy LTE service in 2013. For a company that seemed on the ropes throughout much of 2011, T-Mobile is profitable and looking resurgent; next year could be a turning point if the LTE rollout goes as planned.

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Twitter has changed significantly and has become a "broadcasting (social) network"
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The post-pc era

The floodgates opened last year in the tablet world, bringing forth all kinds of new devices and form factors. There was the Motorola Xoom, the BlackBerry PlayBook, the HP TouchPad, the Galaxy Tab, and the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet (and who could forget the Xyboard?). In 2012, the tablet story is all about saturation — a combination of continued steady tablet sales growth and maturation of form factors and features. The market saw the same furious pace as the previous year, with a number of lines receiving refreshes and some new devices. At the top of the list sits the much-anticipated iPad mini, Google’s surprising Nexus 7, and new Kindle and Nook flagships.

But perhaps most notably, there’s Microsoft. The company went as far as creating its own flagship Windows 8 device, the Surface, which demonstrated a bold effort to showcase the new operating system's tablet credentials. And while Apple and Microsoft sparred over the idea of "post-PC" and "PC plus" worlds, minor differences between the companies have been overshadowed by the reality of their shared vision: it’s a wireless, cloud-driven, handheld world now, and tablets are helping to lead the way.

Sellin' out: Instagram, Snapseed, Sparrow, and more

2012 saw the acquisition of several of our favorite small startups by enormous public companies as tech giants born on the desktop fought to stay relevant in an increasingly mobile world. Instagram, Sparrow, and Snapseed were all plays to acquire some of the top talent across the iOS App Store. The nearly one billion dollars Facebook paid for Instagram in March raised a lot of eyebrows, but is now widely seen as a wise move. Not to be left out of the battle to own mobile pics, Google purchased Nik Software and its award winning photo editing app, Snapseed, later integrating it into Google+ and slashing the price to zero.

If you can’t do it right yourself, just acquire some young guns who’ve already done the job for you

Photos weren’t the only area where Google was clearly nervous about the rise of mobile. In July, Google acquired Sparrow, one of our favorite mail clients for Mac and iPhone. Sparrow tied in tightly with Gmail — perhaps even better than Google’s own Gmail app. The Sparrow team was seemingly just months away from debuting its own iPad app, and Google was in no mood to be displaced on both smartphones and tablets. A few months after the acquisition, Google debuted version 2.0 of its Gmail app for iPhone and iPad that was pretty clearly Sparrow-inspired. With Sparrow effectively out of the picture, Google’s own application might be your best bet for using Gmail on iOS, and that’s exactly how Google wants it to stay.

2012 proved that if you can’t do it right yourself, just acquire some young guns who’ve already done the job for you. And if they reject your acquisition — as Snapchat is rumored to have done — just spend a week or two cloning the product.

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Facebook's year of reckoning

2012 was the year the stars of Web 2.0 got to perform in public. Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon all had their freshman year on the stock market, and all suffered embarrassing slumps since. What happened? For the most part, these companies failed to live up to the expectations they had earned in the press while their finances were still private. 2013 will be the year in which they prove their worth as mature companies, or get consigned to the dustbin of startup bubble hype along with the darlings of the dot-com era.

Facebook’s actual IPO was plagued by technical snafus that killed the stock’s momentum right out of the gate. But it was the company's weakness in mobile and fuzzy forecasting for its first public quarter that really put a dent in the $104 million valuation it had before going public. Its growth slowed in its second quarter, dragging the stock, which debuted at $34, as low as $18 a share. It has since leveled out in the mid to upper $20s.

The major challenge for Facebook is diversifying its revenue stream beyond desktop advertising. While this helped the social network build a billion dollars business, increasingly its users are moving to mobile, where ads earn a fraction of their desktop counterparts. Facebook spent a billion dollars on Instagram in a bid to stay relevant in mobile, a purchase which now looks wise. It has begun experimenting with Gifts, paid messages, and its own ad network in an effort to create a more diverse business model. But with its recent work cloning Snapchat, an upstart competitor in mobile messaging, Facebook increasingly looks like it's playing catch-up rather than defining the terms of the playing field for itself.

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Space: Felix Baumgartner, Neil Armstrong, Curiosity

"After we went to the Moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once ruefully said. If so, then surely 2012 is the year we started dreaming again. We cheered as the rover Curiosity survived "seven minutes of terror" to land on the surface of Mars, and smiled at the first tiny photographs it sent. We sat jaw-agape as Felix Baumgartner jumped from the very edge of space, and fell safely to earth again. We cried as astronaut heroes Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride passed away this year. They don’t make them like that anymore. And when NASA retired the space shuttles, parading them through the streets and skies, we realized that we can’t take the tremendous promise of space for granted. We need ships to get there, after all.

Thankfully, 2012 was also the year that entrepreneurs decided to lend a hand. Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully docked with the International Space Station, completed an actual resupply mission, and finally scattered Scotty’s ashes across the cosmos. (Rest in peace, James Doohan.) Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and SpaceX each tested reusable rockets that can take off and land vertically, which could make spaceflight far more cost-effective. Meanwhile, Google’s Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and filmmaker James Cameron backed Planetary Resources, a company with a plan to mine asteroids for raw materials. Moon bases and Mars colonies are on the agenda, and both wealthy individuals and governments are making plans. Now that we know the world isn’t ending anytime soon, perhaps we should invest in the future again.

Election 2012

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Technology culture shaped a big part of this year’s election, and for many, the pulse of the presidential campaign was felt through the internet: on Twitter, Reddit, and other major online networks and communities. While actual discussion of technology policy wasn’t a big part of the popular national debate, 2012 saw a lot of action in Congress and federal agencies, with consequences for the fundamental structure of the internet, intellectual property rights, consumer privacy, surveillance, and cyberwar.

Political campaigns finally recognized the internet as an essential campaign destination — even if only for show

2012 was also the first year where political campaigns really recognized the internet as an essential campaign destination — even if only for show. Mitt Romney’s campaign earned the distinction of becoming the first to buy a trending topic on Twitter, and Obama stole some internet records, giving Reddit its biggest day ever and claiming the most shared tweet of all time. The next election is sure to bring more of the same.

Sci-fi returns

2012 has been a good year for movies, and despite higher prices IMAX and 3-D experiences are increasingly the norm when you venture out beyond your living room and Netflix subscription. Peter Jackson pushed audiences' vision and patience with the controversial 48fps and a three-part Hobbit series built from the single Tolkien classic. Plus, for fans of sci-fi, the genre found new life — and big studio backing — this year after being dominated by vampires, magicians, and people running around in costumes for the better part of the ’00s. Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with the visually stunning Prometheus and director Rian Johnson put out one of the most original time-travel films in years, while Andrew Stanton’s John Carter flopped spectacularly. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer weaved together a tale that spanned space and time with Cloud Atlas, Robot & Frank told the simple tale of an aging man and his robot caretaker, and for some reason Total Recall got a remake.

2013 looks promising too: Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman join up for the post-apocalyptic Oblivion, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim pits monsters from the deep against human-driven robots, J.J. Abrams is back with Star Trek Into Darkness, and Alfonso Cuarón’s (Children of Men) much-anticipated and hyped Gravity is set to be released. And hey, Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan are teaming up for sci-fi thriller After Earth.

The New Aesthetic

Most of the digital technologies surrounding us today aren’t "new" in the most immediate sense, but 2012 has been a year where we’ve become dramatically more aware of the startling and unexpected ways they encroach on our everyday lives. The changes to our material world, as seen through the hyperreal, often-distorted lens of novel computer technology — or, "the machine gaze" — like Google Street View, is at the core of what artist James Bridle has dubbed "the New Aesthetic," an ongoing exploration of how the digital and physical worlds have become more intertwined than ever before.

"We are already in a world where the digital is erupting into the physical, and we just didn’t really notice it."

Whether it’s the pixelated motifs of early videogames re-emerging in sculpture and designer clothes or the re-purposing of familiar software UI elements for use in subway graffiti, it’s not so much a new artistic movement as it an ongoing game of "I Spy." As comic book author Warren Ellis put it, the New Aesthetic is "an act of noticing, as much as anything: we are already in a machine-vision world, we are already in a world where the digital is erupting into the physical, and we just didn’t really notice it, in the entire breadth of its creeping wave, until now."

Memes go mainstream

2012 saw the mainstreaming of "memes," or, more properly, a lot of pop culture which had previously only held currency on the internet. ROFLCon, the annual meetup of media, the internet famous, and the people who love them, started in 2008. The 2012 meetup at the MIT Campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts was seemingly also the last. That seems fitting for a year which saw Nyan Cat in a Sprint commercial, "Success Kid" Sammy on Virgin billboards in the UK, and the "Double Rainbow" guy selling out to Microsoft. In fact, by the latter half of 2012, the mainstreaming of memes seems to have almost exhausted itself in favor of GIFs and Twitter parody accounts in response to current events (such as the instantly tiresome "chair" that Clint Eastwood talked to at the RNC and Angelina Jolie’s "right leg" following her red carpet walk at the 2012 Oscars’) which have an even shorter period of relevancy than Scumbag Steve (who has actually had a pretty good run). 2013 is sure to bring a new crop of internet trends which filter into the mainstream at an ever faster pace, and which are discarded with barely a "meh."

Kickstarter dominates

Kickstarter made the idea of crowdfunding mainstream, producing a number of breakout and cult hits in comic books, video games, and film, and crossing the $10 million fundraising mark for a single project. Toward the end of the year, though, the site saw a bit of a blacklash as some overly-ambitious projects failed to deliver. Irate backers railed against the site, prompting Kickstarter’s founders tweaked the rules for what’s allowed on the site and issued a manifesto: "Kickstarter is not a store." Rather, it’s a mechanism that allows creators and fans to work together to make things. Kickstarter taught us that crowdfunding can produce brilliant, beautiful, and creative products. Now it must retrain people to understand that it’s a laboratory, not a boutique.

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Disappointments

Disappointments

RIM is no better off today than it was 12 months ago
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RIM stays on the sidelines

To put it mildly, 2012 was a tough year to be a BlackBerry fan. Apart from some cautious optimism from investors that has driven its stock price up in recent months, RIM has had very little to celebrate: sales flagged throughout the year, the PlayBook failed to make a dent, founding co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were ousted, and BlackBerry 10 — the company’s would-be savior — was delayed into 2013. New CEO Thorsten Heins has been on a near-constant PR tour lately insisting that the new platform is the keystone in Waterloo’s overdue turnaround, but for the moment, RIM is no better off today than it was 12 months ago.

Surface: not ready for the post-PC era… yet

The announcement of Microsoft’s attractive, magnesium-clad tablet was met with the kind of intense hype usually reserved for a new Xbox launch, a device intended to serve as a powerful message that Redmond was fully prepared to face the "post-PC era" head-on. It’s far too early to call Surface a failure, but middling reviews leave us with more questions than answers — and the distinction between Windows RT and Windows 8 is still a fuzzy one for consumers.

Windows RT — and Windows on ARM in general — is unquestionably a critical product for Microsoft’s success as traditional PCs take on a small (and shrinking) role, but it might be another product generation or two before we know exactly how Ballmer and crew intend to effectively take on the iPad and lead the company into a world dominated by mobile computing.

Apple’s half-baked Maps

A long-souring relationship with Google ultimately led Apple to push Google’s products almost entirely out of iOS 6 this year, and by all appearances, Cupertino was caught flat-footed by the move to its in-house mapping product. Google Maps has become so good and so mature over the years that almost any competing product looks half-baked, but Apple Maps was particularly terrible at launch — so terrible, in fact, that Apple ended up issuing an apology (a situation that may have cost Scott Forstall his job) and recommending third-party replacements in its own App Store. The product seems to be slowly improving, but the more recent launch of Google’s aftermarket Maps app has been a godsend for iPhone users nonetheless.

Nexus Q launches, then doesn’t

Google’s bizarre media streamer was such a disappointment, it never even launched. Introduced at the company’s annual I/O developer conference in June, the Android-powered sphere was met with confusion over its limited functionality, strange shape, and high price. The decision to produce the Q in the United States was a bold, important, and trend-setting move, but it wasn’t enough to save it: just weeks later, Google decided to delay the device indefinitely and offer developer units for free to existing buyers.

The Nexus 4 breaks our hearts

With the Nexus 4, Google released a new flagship phone that was missing one very important feature: 4G LTE. Nearly everything else about the Nexus 4 was great: a new version of Android, beautiful hardware, and an incredible off-contract price of $299. For all that, though, the decision to avoid the carrier negotiations necessary for releasing an LTE made an otherwise excellent device unacceptable to many users. In the US, at least, the very people that would have been most likely to buy a Nexus device were the kind of people who would demand LTE.

To this day, you still can't buy a Nexus 4 from Google's Play Store

There were still plenty of people ready to buy the Nexus 4, but Google completely mishandled the device’s launch — to this day, it’s not available for purchase on Google’s Play store. Apparently LG, who manufactures the Nexus 4, has been unable to provide sufficient supplies of the phone. Beyond that, though, Google flubbed the launch with errors in its store and didn’t even offer buyers the option to pre-order.

Historically, the purpose of the Nexus program was to "[showcase] what’s possible on Android," according to Google CEO Larry Page. Unfortunately for Google, it’s completely possible to blemish the standard-bearer for the Android platform.

Products of the year

Products of the year

Ipad mini

The classic criticism of the original iPad was that it "was just a big iPhone." That turned out to be a better formula than anybody expected. In late October, the iPad mini was introduced and many said it was "just a smaller iPad." Just as with the original, the criticism worked equally well as praise. It featured the best and most thoughtfully-designed hardware in the "small tablet" category — barring its slightly lower-resolution screen.

Apple wasn’t first to market with a smaller-screened tablet and it wasn’t even first to market with a compellingly good 7-inch tablet, but the iPad’s massive base of apps gave it chance to overcome its latecomer beginnings. Those apps also, perhaps, helped make the extra cost compared to the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD a little less painful.

Nexus 4, 7, 10

Google has had its Nexus line of "pure" Android smartphone since 2010, but this year the company branched out with two Nexus tablets — the well-received Nexus 7 and less-impressive Nexus 10, to be exact. In addition, the company paired up with LG to bring out the Nexus 4 smartphone — a device that we wanted to love so very much if it only had support for LTE networks. The Nexus 7 proved that a low-cost, 7-inch tablet can still offer a great experience, and was the small tablet to buy, until Apple introduced the iPad mini, of course. All three Nexus devices launched with the latest version of Android available at the time (Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for the Nexus 7, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean for the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10), which was a refinement of the major overhaul that Android received in 2011 with Ice Cream Sandwich. Jelly Bean brought significant performance enhancements to the platform thanks to Google’s "Project Butter" efforts, and it also added new features like better notifications and multiple user accounts (on tablets). Where iOS development can feel stagnant, Android continues to introduce innovations and new ideas, something that will surely continue into 2013.

iPhone 5

It wouldn’t be another year without a new iPhone hitting shelves, and the iPhone 5 represents the first significant redesign of the device since 2010’s iPhone 4. The first model to feature a 4-inch display (previous generations made do with a 3.5-inch screen), the iPhone 5 is also the first one to have support for LTE networks. Additionally, it's the thinnest and lightest iPhone to date, and the controversial glass backs of the iPhone 4 and 4S have been swapped for an aluminum backing that can't be shattered. The iPhone 5 doesn’t dramatically change up the iPhone experience — thanks to the relatively minor changes brought on by iOS 6 — but we found it to easily be the best iPhone yet and still to be one of the best smartphones on the market.

Google retakes the iPhone

Apple’s iOS 6 excised Google from the core apps on the iPhone, yanking YouTube and swapping out Google’s Map data for Apple’s. In both cases, Google returned with its own apps in the App Store — showing that it could develop better apps for iOS than Apple itself could. While YouTube was a quick replacement, Google needed a bit more time to release its Maps app — during which Apple faced waves of bad press over its sub-standard map data and lack of transit directions. What was impressive about Google’s Maps app wasn’t that it beat Apple on data — it was that it was so well-designed.

It wasn’t just maps where Google leveraged its data prowess and newly-discovered design sensibilities to beat Apple on the iPhone. Google Search offered better voice recognition and faster, more accurate results than Siri. The Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and even Google+ all offered clean and fast experiences on iOS. Some of these apps were arguably better than what Google has made for its own Android platform. Apple may have tried to minimize Google’s presence on the iPhone, but Google has responded with a suite of apps that show it’s serious about mobile — whether it’s on Android or not.

E-readers rise again

Print books are a dying industry, but that doesn’t mean books are going away. They’re just being replaced by e-readers, and that change is accelerating after a year in which those devices took a huge leap forward. Barnes & Noble led the charge with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, an E Ink model with a built-in frontlight so you can read in the dark — rather than just try to emulate the print reading experience, Barnes & Noble found a way to improve it. Amazon quickly followed suit with the Kindle paperwhite, which has a similar light and an even better E Ink screen. Thanks to great screens, light bodies, long batteries, and a new level of versatility, e-readers aren’t just an easier way to carry books around anymore — they’re a better way to read.

The Nexus 7 proved that a low-cost, 7-inch tablet can still offer a great experience
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Lytro

You shouldn’t buy a Lytro light field camera. Don’t be fooled by the $399 asking price: the tube-shaped device is a gimmicky toy at best. So what makes the Lytro one of the most important products this year? Simple: the potential to revolutionize photography. Thanks to a special sensor and lens that collect far more data than a traditional camera, the Lytro allows you to do incredible things with pictures long after you press the shutter button down. You can adjust the perspective to see around objects, easily see in 3D, or even refocus the entire image on a different subject in the scene. While the image quality is rather underwhelming right now, a professional-grade Lytro — or one in every smartphone — could be a game changer in the coming years.

Galaxy S III / Galaxy Note

Samsung has been pushing its Galaxy line of Android devices for years, but 2012 was the year that they really became a dominant force on the market. The Galaxy S III smartphone easily took the top Android smartphone position when it was released — thanks in no small part to Samsung’s ability to simultaneously release unmolested versions of it across all of the major carriers in the US, a feat reserved for the iPhone until now. The popularity and accessibility of the Galaxy line helped push Samsung ahead of everyone to become not only the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, but also to knock down Nokia from its perch as the world’s biggest cellphone maker. The Galaxy S III proved to have staying power too: it remained the best Android smartphone on the market through the end of the year despite efforts by HTC and Motorola to bring it down.

The Galaxy line pushed Samsung to become the world's largest cellphone manufacturer, knocking Nokia off its perch

Along with the Galaxy S III, Samsung updated its shockingly successful smartphone-tablet hybrid Note device. The Galaxy Note II was easily the ‘tweener device to beat in 2012, with great performance, improved ergonomics, and even more software to take advantage of its S Pen digitizer. Samsung remains unchallenged in this segment (the snooze-worthy LG Optimus Vu / Intuition notwithstanding), though it’s looking like we’ll see quite a few responses to the Note II from the rest of the Android camp in 2013. Unfortunately for Samsung, its success with the Galaxy line of smartphones still hasn’t translated over to its Galaxy line of tablets: the Galaxy Note 10.1 proved to be a disappointment, and Google’s own Nexus 7 easily outshadowed Samsung’s smaller tablet designs. Perhaps we’ll see truly great Galaxy tablets from Samsung next year, but we can’t say we did in 2012.

Wii U

2013’s going to be a big year for gamers, with Sony and Microsoft slated to release new versions of the Playstation and Xbox, respectively. But Nintendo jumped the gun and released the new Wii U in November, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again with a fun, interactive gaming platform. 2013 may prove to be the year that really matters for the new console: there are a lot of fun features and exciting use cases for the Wii U, but Nintendo’s success will ultimately hinge on whether developers are willing to create unique experiences that take full advantage of what the Wii U can do (and whether users are willing to deal with the ridiculous upgrade upon first opening the package). That attention might be hard to come by with two new consoles around the corner, but being first out of the gate may help Nintendo stay relevant.

A look ahead

A look ahead

iPhone defends, Google defines…

Make no mistake, the two dominant mobile platforms in 2013 will remain Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Both have a commanding lead over competitors — each one "winning" in their own right based on various metrics — but both will have to contend with some major growing pains that could chip away at the lead.

After arguably reinventing the mobile market with its debut, the last two years of iPhone have been decidedly less interesting (Siri) or downright detrimental (Maps). This year’s iOS revision is all but certain to make some major changes, at least visually. Longtime iOS steward Scott Forstall has been unceremoniously ousted, and the new lead — legendary industrial designer Jony Ive — isn’t expected to keep the skeuomorphic aesthetic around.

Meanwhile, Google still struggles to define its own platform, whose future is arguably more controlled by Samsung. The Galaxy lineup is the runaway success story, which means the consumer view of Android is always through the pane of TouchWiz and carrier restrictions (c.f. Google Wallet) brokered outside of Google’s purview. The Nexus family shows where Google wants Android to be; with Motorola, it might be able to actually regain influence in Android’s destiny.

… and everyone else fights for third place

Microsoft and RIM, companies whose relevance in the smartphone industry took a nose dive in recent years, will make a strong case for third place. Windows Phone 8 is another fresh start for Microsoft, and the company is pushing hard to ensure its app ecosystem is competitive. It’s a decent start, and it shows the company understands what’s important — it’s the big advantage that Android and iOS have.

"We have a clear shot at being the number three platform on the market."

Meanwhile, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins isn’t mincing words: "we have this one shot [with BlackBerry 10] and we want to be right." The company’s downfall has been almost Shakespearean, but in recent months it has made steps for a major, neary-bet-the-company push.

If there’s a wild card here, it’s Amazon. The retailer’s long-rumored smartphone might finally come out in 2013. Knowing Amazon, it would likely be priced under the competition, with low profit margins made up through digital purchases via Kindle and Instant Video. But while Amazon already has a fairly strong app store that compliments Android devices, it’s challenged standing alone without key apps like Facebook, Rdio, and a halfway decent email client.

The games industry reignites a fight for your living room

Gone is the notion of a dedicated gaming console. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 aren’t so much "video game systems" as they are "entertainment platforms" — an all-purpose set-top box with focus on both gaming and entertainment. Tradition was, major game console makers would release new hardware every four to six years (the Wii U, for example, launched almost six years to the date after its iconic predecessor). The Xbox 360 is now over seven years old, and the PlayStation 3 recently turned six. That new breadth of functionality has given this generation a longer lifespan — but still, it’s time for a refresh.

The Xbox 360 is now over seven years old, and the PlayStation 3 recently turned six

All signs point to a broader-reaching Xbox brand in 2013, starting with two SKUs: a more traditional successor with way more capable hardware (including an updated Kinect sensor) and a more value-priced "Xbox TV" device for casual gaming and streaming — a strong push towards owning your TV viewing habits. Even more interesting, however, could be the extended Xbox device family, including a wrist-worn fitness device and a 7-inch Xbox tablet.

Sony — whose runaway success the PlayStation 2 only just ended production after 13 years — has been more hush-hush with its plans, relatively-speaking. The PlayStation 3 successor (codename possibly Orbis) is tipped to also launch in time for holidays and may be used as a flagship to show off new (Sony-made) 4K-resolution TVs. It also now has Gaikai, the cloud-based gaming service Sony bought with the express purpose of streaming titles "anywhere on a variety of internet-connected devices."

If there’s a surprise to be had here, it’s Valve. The company is a commanding presence in the PC gaming market both with its near-flawless track record of games (Half-Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead) and its distribution platform Steam. After a year of whispers, co-founder Gabe Newell confirmed that it’ll bring its own console-like PC to the living room. No telling when — the company is notorious for delays — but we wouldn’t be surprised to see some forward progress next year. The real question is, would such a "Steam Box" dedicate its efforts to games or try for broader, more entertainment-focused appeal?

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Disposable content

Snapchat, the app that lets you send self-destructing messages, was a late contender for the year’s top stories. But it’s taken the web by such storm that it would be remiss of us to omit it. The app has exploded in popularity, raised $8 million in venture capital, and even inspired a copycat version from Facebook called Poke. Reporters dinged it for promoting teen sexting, but the app’s makers say nudity is a tiny part of its usage. All pearl-clutching and talk of sexting aside, Snapchat represents an evolution in content creation and sharing. Most web services are moving to exhaustive archiving. Facebook moved to Timeline in order to make every person a museum. Google started automatically uploading all your Android photos to Google+. Twitter added an archive of recent photos to your profile. But people are getting tired of all this digital hoarding, and they’re getting sick of the pressure to look your best in every photo because it may end up on the web forever. People use Snapchat to take a picture of especially fabulous bedhead, of the calories burned on the elliptical, of a badly-translated sign, or of a particularly impressive BM (that last example courtesy a group of a friend’s 21-year-old brother). As digital content explodes and explodes, we’re realizing that every photo is not a precious snowflake, and frankly, they’re clogging up our phones. Snapchat may be a fad, but we’re betting disposable content has staying power.

Google Glass, and my so-called (augmented) life

If 2012 was the year "lifetracking" went mainstream — when counting steps and sleep habits broke out into a broader audience — then 2013 could be the year we experiment with wearing our gadgets on our sleeve. And wrists. And face.

Augmented reality has long been a novelty for portable devices — seriously, how often do you actually wave a smartphone in front of you to find a restaurant (Yelp Monocle, Nokia’s City Lens) or translate a sign (Word Lens)? The fundamental idea is that our eyes aren’t good enough — that we should have access to more data without having to look down.

This year, Google announced Project Glass, an AR headset that’s big on dreams and light on details. The company then spent the year promoting the the eyewear at press events and even TV shows like Charlie Rose. AR is far from a new concept, but Google is clearly willing to put weight behind its efforts. Project Glass expected to arrive for developers in early 2013 and consumers late in the year. And behind the scenes, companies like Microsoft and Valve are experimenting even more functionality.

Of course, if you really want to get ahead of the game, there’s always surgery.

The Verge
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