2012: The year in smartphones

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Like dogs, smartphones grow up, grow old, and retire quicker than people do. The rate of change was especially fast in 2012, a year marked by several major smartphone milestones. Let's take a brisk walk through the past 12 months in the world of smartphones.


The year began with CES, the annual debutante ball for many of the products we had heard about in 2011. Smartphone highlights included the U.S. launches of the Samsung Galaxy Note and HTC Titan. And for evidence of just how quickly the smartphone market moves, consider that updated models have already supplanted both products.


The misty month of February found Asus blurring the lines between tablet and smartphone with its PadFone—an unusual combination of a more-or-less normal Android phone (equipped with a 4.3-inch display) and a docking shell that—when you insert the phone into its dock—becomes a rather bulky ersatz tablet with a 10.1-inch display. The design was certainly innovative, but our cohorts at PCWorld Australia deemed the PadFone a rather poor hybrid overall. Perhaps a couple more generations of cross-breeding in a dark lab will get it right: Asus has just announced a new version: the PadFone 2.


In case you somehow failed to notice that we've become a nation of smartphone junkies—perhaps because you were too busy texting or playing mobile games?—March brought news from Pew Research that almost 50 percent of the adult population of the United States now uses a tablet or smart phone. Subsequent research found that 44 percent of cell phone users sleep with their phones. The survey didn't examine the question of how many of those users got kicked out of bed after receiving repeated wrong-number calls between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. on any given night.


In April, revenue figures indicated that Samsung had become the world's top seller of cell phones, knocking Nokia out of the top spot it held for 14 years. Though numbers from different sources varied, the trend continued through the year, even after the launch of the iPhone 5.


May was the month when Google finally laid down some of its spare change to buy Motorola's Mobility division, which the main company had spun off in 2011. Google paid $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility, triggering speculation that Google will use the company to improve its hardware offerings as well as its patent portfolio.


Samsung Galaxy S III

The U.S. release of the Samsung Galaxy S III, the star phone in Samsung's Android lineup, came in June. This phone was notably large (a 4.8-inch screen) and small (0.34 inch thick), and it sold strongly in the United States, though some users experienced delays in obtaining the Pebble Blue model, owing to manufacturing problems. Despite this setback, Samsung claimed to have shipped 10 million of the phones by the end of July.


July was a sweet month for Android users, thanks to the release of Android 4.1 (codename Jelly Bean). Though Google launched the update in early July, it continues to reach users at a rather leisurely pace, depending primarily on when various mobile networks make the update available to their customers.


In August, litigation in the worldwide series of Apple v. Samsung cases culminated in a verdict by a California jury finding that the South Korean company had infringed patents belonging to the California company, and awarding Apple more than a billion dollars in damages. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Samsung appealed the verdict and Apple continued to petition courts to stop sales of Samsung phones. You can expect this legal controversy to rage on for the next few years, to the great emolument of the lawyers employed by both sides.


In September, Apple released a new iPhone, which nobody bought. Kidding: The iPhone 5 went down faster than a dog treat in a pile of puppies, selling over 5 million units during the first weekend. Simultaneously, the company announced a new version of iOS, which (among other things) replaced the built-in Google Maps app with Apple's own maps program. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bad move, as the product was fundamentally flawed.

Meanwhile, Nokia was forced to apologize after its demo of the Lumia 920's PureView camera turned out not to be a demo of the smartphone camera; instead, as a reflection in a window in the video revealed, the demo was shot on an SLR. The struggling cellphone company apologized, and to its credit the Nokia Lumia 920 proved to be an excellent phone.


October continued the apologetic theme, with Apple issuing a rare public apology from CEO Tim Cook for the shortcomings of the Apple Maps app. A suitable scapegoat was found in iOS chief Scott Forstall, who left Apple in a management change, shortly after he reportedly refused to sign the aforementioned apology.More bad news for Apple came on the legal front, when a U.S. appellate court reversed a lower-court order that had banned sales of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

Also in October, Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8, with phones running the new version of the company's mobile OS announced from Nokia (the Lumia 920) and HTC (the Windows Phone 8X and 8S). And elsewhere, T-Mobile and MetroPCS hooked up, though they insisted that they will retain their separate corporate identities, apartments, and social circles. We'll see: This type of semi-open relationship usually ends up with one credit card, one address, and a lot of spare furniture. Former T-Mobile paramour AT&T was said to be moving on with its life and not dwelling on the past.


November saw the launch of the iPhone 5 in China, where consumers snapped up more than 2 million phones in the first three days of availability. Samsung launched the Galaxy Note II, the replacement for the long-in-the-tooth Galaxy Note that the company had launched way back in January. And to show that it wasn't slacking, HTC released the Droid DNA on Verizon—a model that tried to out-iPhone the iPhone 5 with a screen resolution of 440 pixels per inch (the iPhone 5 has a resolution of 326 ppi).


In December, we took a ride with Nokia to see how mobile maps are made, while Apple failed in its latest effort to get a U.S. court to block the sale of certain Samsung phones. Beleaguered phonemaker Research In Motion (RIM to its remaining friends) started trials of the new version of its mobile Blackberry OS (version 10), which it now plans to release early next year, along with new devices.

Our wishes for 2013? Some resolution of the Android fragmentation problem would be nice, as would an iPhone 6 that's bigger (or smaller), faster (or slower), and more, erm, different. But our fondest hope is for a brief pause in the release of new phones so that we can review a smartphone before it gets replaced by a newer model.

This story, "2012: The year in smartphones" was originally published by TechHive.

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