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Tech 2012: A review of the year

A lot can happen to the world of technology in 12 months, and 2012 certainly played its part in reinforcing such a notion.

The ubiquity of the smartphone has seen the industry truly explode as the ever-expanding Android monster threatens to overwhelm its rivals – though innovation from Apple on iOS and Microsoft on Windows Phone has made for some tasty handset contests. Social media has turned big user-bases into big business, but has another year of growth been soured by controversial advertising and privacy policies from our favourite social networks?

Tablets also slotted into many more of our lives, with the 7in form-factor attracting new buyers and providing a fierce battle-ground for manufacturers in the process. So fierce that companies were taking rivalries from store shelves to courtrooms, with Apple and Samsung slugging out the biggest legal duel throughout much of the year. Meanwhile, Microsoft was throwing everything it had at a comeback, new mapping technology brought both gaffs and glory, and UK mobile users finally began surfing those high-speed 4G LTE waves. Farewell 2012, and thank you for (most of) the following...

The fight for the smartphone crown

Taking place in February, the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) usually serves up a major new handset to get the ball rolling in the mobile arena each year, and the HTC One X was arguably MWC's headliner for 2012. The One X pulled in a steady stream of favourable reviews and it took until May for the smartphone sector to be truly shaken again, with Samsung unveiling its fervently anticipated Galaxy S3. The launch event befitted the hype; a grandiose affair at Earls Court heralding the latest flagship from the Korean firm.

The S3 attracted an incredible 9 million pre-orders and shifted over 20 million units in its first 100 days of release, making it the smartphone of the year. Apple’s iPhone 5, which matched the S3 for pre-release anticipation, if not post-launch appreciation, was always likely to pull in similarly impressive sales, but iOS 6 glitches and complaints over the hardware’s durability meant, in the eyes of many, Apple played second fiddle to its bitter rivals Samsung in the smartphone stakes this year.

The Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 offered the final major challenge to the S3’s crown when they hit the market in November, but somewhat representing Nokia’s fortunes as a whole, it was a case of too little too late if the Finns were hoping to make a significant indent on the 2012 scene. The new Lumias are undoubtedly credible handsets and are likely to sell fairly consistently into 2013, but with Android increasingly representing the default platform for non-iPhone users, it may be a little while yet before we see Windows Phones like these become consumer favourites.

Enter the phablet

A paragraph summing up the best smartphones of 2012 that shuns the Samsung Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note 2? Disgrace.

If you just uttered that sentence, you needn’t worry, because we’ve actually gone and given them their very own sub-headed section. Well, we’ve used the rather crude term that’s been used to denote the segment they’ve come to dominate. The fledgling ‘phablet’ category belongs to this year’s Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and the original Note that sold strongly through the year despite initially hitting shelves in 2011.

The huge display size, up to 5.5in on the Note 2, makes it something of a phone/tablet hybrid - hence the dubious 'phablet' moniker - but the device itself is entirely more convincing. Unveiled at IFA in Berlin, its impressive spec sheet drew intrigue from the outset and performance ultimately delivered too, with its stunning screen offering excellent hand-writing technology among a host of slick features that utilised its nifty stylus pen.

Facebook’s Instagram splurge

Despite breaking the 1 billion user barrier this year, Facebook is still searching for ways to cement itself as a truly sustainable business. Expanding its presence and portfolio in mobile seems to be crucial to the Zuckerberg master plan these days, with one of the year’s biggest deals in the tech world proving as such in May.

We all took a collective gasp at $1 billion cash and stock offer Facebook reportedly slapped down to seal the Instagram deal, though the final sum proved to be a less shocking, but nevertheless hefty $300 million in cash and 23 million shares of stock.

Users of Instagram were worried the identity of the app would be lost amid Facebook’s heaving online empire, but the end of the year brought agitation of a different kind when a change in the service’s terms of use indicated that Instagram now had rights to sell user photos for whatever they saw fit. The company moved swiftly to calm the outcry, arguing that "legal documents are easy to misinterpret." But in a year when concern has mounted over Facebook’s tightening grip on users through its own terms of use and privacy policies, has the Instagram furore served to deepen our distrust of social media?

7in tablets prosper

The Acer-manufactured tablet is a strong performer, which served to make its £159 price-tag (8GB model) quite remarkable, and it was soon clear Google had a hardware blockbuster on its hands. Amazon responded by launching the Kindle Fire HD in September - another cost-friendly 7in slate – but it failed to woo commentators in the same way as the super-slick Nexus 7.

Ensuring it had the last word however, was Apple, whose 7.9in iPad mini boasted the requisite capabilities to justify its steeper £269-upwards pricing. The first smaller iPad of the famous range, the mini quickly became a favourite among Christmas shoppers.

Patent wars

2012 would also prove that these marketplace battles are not simply won in the stores. Patent wars raged worldwide with lawsuits lodged like they were going out of fashion. Everyone was at it, scoring points of rival companies by accusing competing products of infringing on patented tech, to the extent that Apple even laid claim to rectangles with rounded edges when it came to hardware design.

Scarily, this actually became a key part of Apple’s ceaseless country-hopping patent war with Samsung, which reached its zenith in San Jose, California when the former was awarded over $1 billion in damages from its South Korean foe. Juries away from home turf were less sympathetic to Apple’s cause, with the UK courts going so far as demanding the US firm published an apology to Samsung for making such frivolous accusations. The nature of this apology, which only arrived after a lengthy appeal, rather summed up the year’s petty patent squabbles and Apple’s increasingly puerile behaviour.

Apple’s Mapping woe

In generating its own mapping service, Apple’s motives were understandable. It must have been frustrating that an app belonging to an arch-rival lay at the heart of so many users’ iOS configuration, so in September the Cupertino firm ended Google Maps’ reign as the default mapping service of its software and unleashed its very own navigational app as a replacement. But it’s fair to say the iOS 6 Maps experiment didn’t go too well.

With major locations missing, directions leading users astray, and crude graphical blunders being littered across the service, it didn’t take long for a backlash to begin. Apple Maps fails were posted all over the web with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘Amazing iOS 6 Maps’ Tumblr proving especially popular. Google must have been revelling in the clamour for its return to the iOS mapping scene and in December it duly obliged, releasing an updated version of its famous service in the app store. As downloads continue to pour in for the new Google Maps, it is clear who won this particular duel between two of the tech world’s heavyweights.

UK goes 4G

This autumn the UK’s long wait for high-speed 4G connectivity finally came to an end as Everything Everywhere stole in ahead of its rivals to launch its refarmed LTE mobile spectrum. With a multitude of countries already enjoying the next generation of connectivity, UK businesses, consumers and tech enthusiasts had been growing increasingly frustrated with Ofcom’s delays in sanctioning the 4G rollouts. But even more aggrieved were the likes of Vodafone and O2 when Ofcom did eventually give the green light, as they could only sit and watch as Everything Everywhere was afforded a crucial head-start in offering 4G data plans to the British public.

Keen to capitalise on its status as 4G trailblazers, Everything Everywhere set off on a marketing drive that included shortening its name to the sharper and simpler, EE. First impressions of life on its spectrum have been promising, with high-speed browsing proving a particular joy on powerful handsets like the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

With EE’s contracts priced at a premium rate and 4G connectivity currently limited to the UK’s major cities, the new wave of mobile browsing has yet to reach the masses, but expect this to change in 2013. By the end of the first quarter, 4G will be available in 17 more towns and cities across the country, expanding EE's spectrum to cover 35 different locations in all; while Ofcom’s 4G auction is now underway for the rest of the telecoms field meaning alternative 4G contracts should be available by spring.

Microsoft throws everything at revival

Having watched its tech competitors steal the headlines for most of the year, Microsoft launched a product onslaught in October in a bid to define the closing chapter of 2013. Both PC and mobile were covered as Windows 8 was released alongside Windows Phone 8, while a rare foray into the hardware market came via a new tablet – the Surface.

In terms of software, the metro-style interface of Windows 8 and WP8 were both well-received in the main, but the formidable competition provided by Apple in both markets, and the added problem of Android in mobile, mean Microsoft is still facing an uphill struggle. As for the Surface, an inflated price tag (even the very cheapest model costs £479 once you’ve included the cover) means the Redmond company’s tablet venture has also got off to an underwhelming start.

With Windows 8 bringing together a full mobile, tablet and PC ecosystem, you can’t fault Microsoft’s efforts to really leave its mark on 2012, but questions remain over the Steve Ballmer administration and whether it's been savvy enough to close the gap on Apple, Google et al.