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2012 in Tech: Year-End Review

by Larry Magid
This post fist appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

This was a relatively uneventful year for tech gadgets and services, but the companies behind those products still managed to make a lot of news.

As usual, Apple got more than its share of news — both positive and negative. This was the first full year without Steve Jobs, who died in October of last year. Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, seemed to steer the ship reasonably well throughout the year, although there was some turbulence.

After years of success, despite having a relatively small screen, Apple’s iPhone finally stretched the iPhone, making it thinner and taller and increasing its screen size from 3.5 to 4 inches. Meanwhile, Apple shrunk the iPad in 2012 by offering the iPad mini along with a new and faster version of its full-sized iPad.

One of the biggest Apple stories of the year involved a rare misfire. With its new iOS 6, Apple replaced Google maps with its own version that got horrible reviews, including one from an Australian police department that called the map “potentially life-threatening” after having to rescue motorists who wound up being misdirected to the middle national park instead of a nearby city.

Another big story was Apple’s courtroom battle with rival Samsung. The two companies sued each other in several countries, including the United States, where a San Jose jury awarded Apple more than $1 billion dollars in damages after finding that Samsung infringed on a number of its patents. Suits and countersuits between the companies are ongoing and will continue to be a story in 2013.

Apple’s iPads continued to do very well in 2012, but their market domination shrank a bit as rivals gain ground. Android tablets, according to IDC, accounted for 42.7 percent of the market this year, with Apple slipping to 53.8 percent. Windows came in a distant third with 2.9 percent. The top Android tablet makers are Samsung and Amazon, which both came out with well regarded tablets this year, including Amazon’s 7-inch and 10-inch Kindle Fire HD models, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and Google’s Nexus 10, which is manufactured by Samsung.

Social media

Social media also was in the news in 2012. Facebook went public in May, and announced in October that it had more than 1 billion active users around the world. The IPO was marred by technical glitches at Nasdaq and a stock price that remains far below its IPO price.

Instagram, which lets users take, edit and post pictures from mobile phones, grew in popularity this year and was acquired by Facebook in April for $1 billion. Snapchat, which lets users take pictures that automatically disappear after 10 seconds, was launched late in 2011 and September of this year had shared more than a billion photos through its iOS app. Some articles have claimed that Snapchat is all about sexting but its founder, Evan Spiegel, said that it’s more about encouraging people to share photos that are more “casual” because, unlike most online pictures, they don’t stick around forever.

Big year for Microsoft

This was a big year for Microsoft, though it’s not yet clear whether it’s been a good one. The company, known mostly for supplying operating systems and office software that runs on PCs made by other companies, decided to jump into the computer hardware business for the first time by launching its own line of Surface tablets.

It also released a new operating system — Windows 8 — designed to run on both PCs and tablets and sporting a new interface based on tiles rather than traditional PC icons. Although Windows 8 allows users to access the traditional Windows desktop interface, the default interface is very un-Windows-like with a single page of tiles to launch apps and programs. Based on early reports, PCs running Windows 8 are getting off to a tepid start. According to NPD, “Since the Windows 8 launch on October 26, Windows device sales have fallen 21 percent versus the same period last year.”

Not all the big news was about products. Yahoo (YHOO) surprise and delighted many in Silicon Valley by luring Google executive Marissa Mayer to become its new CEO, and Silicon Valley flexed its muscles this year by helping to derail the U.S. House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the U.S. Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) that would have, among other things, banned search engines from linking to websites distributing pirated materials or promoting counterfeit goods. A concerted effort that included a one-day Wikipedia blackout and an online signature campaign promoted by Google, convinced lawmakers to drop the bill, despite pressure from the entertainment industry, which had been promoting the bill.

And despite doomsday rumors circulated via the Internet, the world didn’t come to an end on Dec. 21 when the Mayan calendar ended its phase. Just as our 2012 calendar is about to give way to 2013, the Mayan “long count” switched over to the next baktun, which is equal to about 394 of our years. I’m sure glad most of us don’t use that calendar. Could you imagine having to write a column predicting what will happen in technology over the next 144,000 days?