High-tech 2012: The 10 biggest news events of the year

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Dog years may snag all the metaphors, but canine aging doesn't blaze by nearly as fast as the news cycle in the technology world. With 2012 drawing to a close, it’s hard to parse the flood of major stories that have taken place since Labor Day alone, much less during the whole 12 months.

Singling out the 10 most significant news stories of 2012 was no easy task—but we did it nonetheless. And did we leave something out? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Windows 8 makes its debut

The biggest news this year was, of course, the release of Windows 8, which brought renewed energy to the PC ecosystem, along with more than its fair share of controversy—not the least of which was Microsoft's matter to take hardware matters into its own hands with the launch of its self-made Surface tablet.

The move represented a new willingness on the part of the software giant to compete directly with the OEMs that have traditionally been Microsoft’s closest allies. Fears from Microsoft's OEM partners seem to be playing out, with the Surface RT snagging the lion's share of the (lackluster) early Windows RT tablet market. The Surface doesn’t look to be a one-off excursion for Microsoft, either. The company's latest shareholder letter makes explicit that hardware is going to be a part of Microsoft’s future, for better or for worse.

Windows 8's pretty tiles aren't without controversy.

On the software side of things, Windows 8 divided reviewers and users alike with substantial changes to the user interface and a new focus on touch-enabled devices—a far cry from the near-rapturous reception Windows 7 received three years earlier. While Microsoft triumphantly claimed that it's sold more than 40 million Windows 8 licenses thus far, that number includes sales to corporations and OEM manufacturers, and it’s not yet clear how well the operating system is selling in stores . Early reports indicate that it’s missed Microsoft’s internal projections and that it hasn’t done much to boost hardware sales, though browser usage indicates that Windows 8 is at least beating the lackluster adoption pace set by Windows Vista.

Adding to the drama, Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows division, left the company just weeks after Windows 8’s launch. Did he quit or was he fired? Neither party is telling. Though reports claim Sinofsky’s exit had to do with his prickly management style than the success or failure of Windows 8, the departure didn’t help public perception of Microsoft’s fortunes so soon after the controversial operating system's launch.

Apple vs Samsung: Year two fallout

The iPad design patent illustration.

The Great Patent War between Apple and Samsung entered its second year in 2012, with a number of legal bombshells falling on either side. The biggest by far was the landmark ruling in September, which found largely in Apple’s favor and fined Samsung an enormous $1.05 billion . Though Samsung alleged jury misconduct, its appeal was denied, and Judge Lucy Koh refused to grant the company a new trial.

Samsung won back a minor victory when the court denied Apple’s request for a permanent injunction forbidding the sale of several Samsung devices. Apple took another major blow as the US Patent Office tentatively declared the “Steve Jobs patent,” which covers—broadly—gesture control on a touch screen, invalid.

The Apple-Samsung lawsuits are ongoing in countries all across the globe, and we’re sure there will be more bombshells to talk about at the end of 2013.

Megaupload gets shut down

In January, Megaupload was wiped off the face of the Internet, its domain names seized, assets confiscated, and founders imprisoned by New Zealand police acting on behalf of the US government. The popular filesharing site’s closure started a firestorm on the internet, spurring the “hacktivist” group Anonymous to launch a successful denial-of-service attack against the Deparment of Justice, the RIAA and others. The site’s closure had a domino effect , causing many other “cyberlocker” sites—including FileSonic, Uploaded.to, UploadBoc, FileJungle and FileServe, amongst scads of others—to either clamp down on file sharing or preemptively shut down their entire service, fearing similar government action.

The debate over SOPA, the much-maligned internet piracy act, was raging at the time, and MegaUpload’s closure led many to question whether the act was even necessary if the US government already had the wide-ranging power necessary to take down a Hong Kong-based company run by New Zealand nationals.

Megaupload.com's current home page was custom made!

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom became a minor New Zealand celebrity after the raid, and has won a series of court victories since. New Zealand judges have given Dotcom the right to press charges against the government for illegally spying on him prior to the raid—creating a political firestorm that resulted in NZ Prime Minister John Key apologizing to Dotcom— and found that the warrants used to raid Megaupload manor were invalid, rendering the whole search and seizure illegal. Though the ultimate question of his extradition to the US is still unanswered, Dotcom is moving ahead with plans to launch Mega —an encrypted file sharing successor to Megaupload.

Facebook: public offerings and privacy concerns

Of course, Facebook’s been kind of a big deal for a long time now, but 2012 marked the year that the social network became the publically-traded corporation that everyone loves to hate. The company's blockbuster billion-dollar IPO in May was plagued by technical difficulties , and the Facebook's stock value slumped to around half its initial $38 per-share price over the following three months. Facebook’s market worth has recovered since then, but still hasn’t come close to meeting launch day numbers.

The IPO came just a month after Facebook announced its biggest acquisition ever, picking up photo sharing app Instagram for a cool $1 billion. At the time, both companies were insistent that Instagram would remain an independent service, but the photo app has recently had its first Facebook-esque privacy flap.

Speaking of privacy flaps, Facebook capped off a controversial year with the decision earlier this month to eliminate user voting on privacy issues and site governance, provoking a predictable (and predictably unfruitful) public outcry.

Apple loses its edge in online maps

Apple Maps' version of Las Vegas looks an awful lot like the Fallout series.

Apple and Google were once natural allies, united against perennial tech juggernaut Microsoft. As smartphones have become the new tech battlefield and Microsoft has receded from its once-dominant position, the relationship has broken down and Google services have started disappearing from Apple devices. The final straw came with the release of iOS 6 in September, which replaced the popular Google-powered Maps app with Apple’s own internally-developed app. The new Maps app lacked several major features, including transit directions and street view, and had a nasty habit of sending people to the completely wrong location.

Users, it turns out, aren’t fond of having something they’re used to taken away and replaced with a shoddy alternative. The uproar was swift and sustained—enough that Apple CEO Tim Cook released a public statement apologizing for the app’s shortcoming and suggesting that users try downloading a different map app from one of their competitors.

iPhone users finally regained access to the maps they had come to love when Google released an official maps app into the iOS app store in mid-December. That’s got to be a relief to Aussies, who had been warned just days before that Apple Maps’ inaccurate directions could send them on a potentially-fatal trip into the outback.

Kickstarter and the meteoric rise of crowdfunding

The Pebble Watch is Kickstarter's highest-ever earner.

Kickstarter has been around since 2009, but it wasn’t until February of this year that the website became a phenomenon. That was when Time Schafer’s Double Fine Productions used the service to raise $3.3 million to create an old-school adventure game, and kicked off a string of mega-successful Kickstarter campaigns including Project Eternity ($4 million), the Ouya Android-based console ($8.6 million) and the Pebble E-Paper Watch(a whopping $10.3 million).

Seemingly overnight, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites have become the go-to source of cash for projects too hip for old-fashioned venture capital. Our only question: how many of this year’s funding success stories are going to become next year’s vaporware?

The Department of Justice sues pretty much everybody over e-book price fixing

The DoJ doesn't play when it comes to price fixing!

2012 was a bad year for e-book publishers, who saw one of their chances to break Amazon’s stranglehold on the market slip away. Afraid that Amazon was driving e-book prices too low, the publishers allegedly collaborated—conspired, you might say—to push wide adoption of an "agency" model, where the publishers set the price of e-books and retailers received a cut of the profits.

Apple allegedly encouraged the move, wanting to secure higher 30 percent margins on e-book sales rather than being forced to lower prices with competitors like Amazon, who were all too willing to offer e-books at lower prices (and lower margins). Under agency pricing, the cost of best-selling e-books leaped from Amazon's early $9.99 selling price to between $12.99 and $14.99

The Department of Justice was none too fond of this “collective effort to end retail price competition by coordinating their transition to an agency model across all retailers,” which would assuredly result in higher prices for consumers. The DoJ filed suit against 5 major publishers, as well as Apple, who was accused of colluding with the publishers out of a desire to raise profit margins on e-books. HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette agreed to settle right away, while Penguin agreed to the DoJ's terms in December. Apple and Macmillian continue to fight the case in court.

Twitter’s big year

Twitter had another banner year, repeatedly setting and breaking records for volume of tweets—first during the London Olympics and then during the presidential election, which saw a peak of 327,452 tweets per minute and the most retweeted picture of all time. The service also passed 500 million total users and 200 million active users in 2012, and it introduced the “cards” API that allows companies to automatically add multimedia elements when someone tweets a link to their site—all with barely a Fail Whale to be seen. Even the Pope signed up for a Twitter account in 2012.

Barack Obama's victory tweet broke Twitter records.

Not everything the happened in the Twitterverse was positive, though. The company continued to lock down its API, shutting out the third party Twitter clients that helped it become popular in the first place. Tweetro, the popular Windows 8 client, became the latest victim of the policy when Twitter shut off its API access, even though there’s not currently an official native Windows 8 Twitter app.

The microblogging service was also on the receiving end of heavy-handed corporate policy this year, as Instagram (now owned by Facebook) shut off Twitter integration, making it impossible for users to post Instagram photos directly into their Twitter feeds . The very next day, however, Twitter outed native photo filters of its own, somewhat—somewhat—softening the blow for people who love to take pictures of bicycles leaning against lamp posts in the rain.

Yahoo's executive turmoil

If any tech company needs a strong hand at the helm, it’s Yahoo. The company still owns one of the most visited sites on the planet, but its future strategy is unclear. That’s what the firm was hoping for when they hired on Scott Thompson shortly into the new year—but it’s not what they got.

Thompson, who took over for an underperforming Carol Bartz, didn’t even last half a year. He was fired in May for faking an entry on his resume, prompting five board members to resign their position early and leading Yahoo to begin its search for its fifth CEO in as many years.

That search ended in July, with the announcement that Marissa Mayer—long a public face at Google—would take the helm. In the months since, she's instituted morale-boosting initiatives such as free lunches, free phones, and all-hands meetings on Fridays. The spirit-lifting seems to be paying off; in December, Yahoo launched a new Flickr app and a streamlined Yahoo Mail refresh, dragging the two formerly stodgy offerings kicking and screaming into modern times.

Google gets into tablets

Google's Nexus 7: Less than $50 per processing core.

The Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 weren’t the first Android tablets, of course, but they were the ones that made Android a viable threat to the iPad. (The Kindle Fire is only sorta-kinda Android.) With a gorgeous 1280 x 800 pixel screen and a quad-core 1.3 GHz processor, the Nexus 7 is a compelling product with an even more compelling $200 price tag. Suddenly the iPad’s $500 price tag looks positively luxurious, and even the iPad Mini seems like the less practical choice.

The Nexus 10, on the other hand, delivers an iPad Retina display-beating 2560 x 1600 resolution and similarly beefy internals for just $400. In other words, Google's thrusting tablets forward while driving prices downward across the board.

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