Google's Sergey Brin: He can pay you not to call him 'four eyes'. Paul Sakuma/AP
review 2012

Tweets, tablets and patents: 2012 in tech

Has Apple peaked? Has Microsoft lost its way? Is Twitter just here for the tax? Was Instagram worth the $1bn?

2012 WILL BE REMEMBERED as a year which saw Facebook throw money at Twitter – and then see shareholders money thrown away as its share price fell.

It’ll also be the year of the election meme, of patent wars, and – who knows – possibly as the year Apple peaked.

Here’s a brief summary of 2012 in tech.

The year of the patent wars

Image: Lee Jin-man/AP

Legal disputes between Apple and Samsung (and/or Google) over the designs and features of their phones and tablet devices had been ongoing, but 2012 was the year that they took off.

In January a German court blocked the sale of some Samsung tablets, because of the similarities between the Galaxy Tab devices and the iPad, as did a US court in June – but in July a British court ordered Apple to run ads admitting that Samsung had not copied its bestselling tablet.

In Samsung’s native South Korea, meanwhile, a court found that each company had infringed the patents of the other, and put a legal bar on some sales of both brands, while a Japanese court rejected Apple’s claims.

In the meantime, Samsung was hit with new claims from Ericsson, while Google completed its acquisition of Motorola – which it said it did simply to get hold of the mobile manufacturer’s patent book.

We could go on.

Not one, but two (and a half) new iPads

Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

By Apple hysteria standards, the world barely coughed when in March, Apple replaced the iPad 2 with the ‘new iPad’, which was basically the same machine, but with a retina display and slightly faster.

Eight months later, early adopters were left irked when the iPad 3 was discontinued and replaced with the iPad 4, which included another faster processor, another sharper surname and… well, not a whole lot else. But it was new, and people lapped it up.

There was, of course, also the release of the iPad Mini, which just takes the whole thing and shrinks it into Kindle/Nexus sizes.

Elections are basically just meme contests now

The US election should have been about using social media to further the messages of the various candidates.

Instead, it just became about Eastwooding, Barack Obama’s victory message being retweeted tens of thousands of times, and Mitt Romney asking app users to believe in ‘Amercia‘. Wherever that is.

On a more serious note, Romney’s hopes cannot have been helped by the election-day meltdown of a custom-built ‘get out the vote’ software package that left volunteers without any clear instruction on what they should be doing, and when.

Facebook goes public…

Photo: Richard Drew/AP

After years of waiting, the world’s most popular and populous social network finally went public, when Facebook shares went on sale on the NASDAQ stock exchange, and giving us all an unusual insight into what goes on at the company.

In hindsight, people perhaps could have waited a bit longer. The shares had a first-day surge before beginning a slow slide which has seen them lose about 30 per cent of their value ever since.

…with its billion users

It wasn’t all bad for Facebook, though: 2012 was the year that the site surged past the unprecedented ‘billion active users per month’ mark.

If Facebook was a country, its population would be smaller than only China and India.

Twitter comes to town

Photo: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

2012 was also the year that Twitter opened up in Dublin, joining the likes of Facebook, Google and Microsoft which already have bases here. Recruitment began earlier this year – with one of the new recruits having got the gig after his unusual alternative CV went viral worldwide.

Dropbox also announced its plans to open an office in Dublin, its first outside of the US.

When glasses go Googly

Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

In April 2012 people said they had seen Google co-founder Sergey Brin wearing funky glasses around the company’s California HQ. In June, the search giant held a developers’ conference where it showed them off.

The Google Glass is basically augmented reality taken to a whole new level – placing useful information or directions right in front of a user’s eyes without them needing to look at a phone first. The $1,500-a-pair prototypes start shipping next year.

By the way, the photo above – of Sergey Brin wearing the glasses – was taken at the signing of a bill making driverless cars legal in California, another Google initiative.

Microsoft’s venture into the tablet market

Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

2012 is the year of Windows 8 – a significant progression in look and feel from Windows 7 – which marked the first real time that Microsoft had carefully coordinated its operating systems to work across multiple platforms.

Part of this is the rollout of the Microsoft Surface – a custom-built tablet that runs the operating system, and in a major departure from the iPad and Galaxy tablets, comes with a keyboard built into its lid.

The device was released to the public in October 2012 – it won’t be until next year that we truly see how it takes off.

Instagram (and Facebook) versus Twitter

Image: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

The dominant theme by the end of the year was the growing antipathy between photo-filter-makey-cooler-looker Instagram and Twitter, with the Facebook-owned image service disconnecting the embeddibility of its photos in individual tweets.

Instagram was seen by many as a fad at the start of the year – but perceptions changed when Facebook bought it for a cool $1 billion in April, under the auspices of using its service to supplement its own photo-sharing capabilities (it’s already the world’s most popular photo host).

The latest move could hint at larger tensions between Facebook and Twitter, which may be a key theme of how we use the web in 2013.

2013: The year of Apple’s decline?

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Though the company is still the most valuable company on earth, with its share price 25 per cent higher than it was on January 1, many wonder what Apple could have left up its sleeve.

The company’s share of the tablet market is being slowly chipped away, while Android phones are consolidating their lead in the handset stakes; with everyday laptops becoming cheaper and cheaper, Apple is finding it tougher and tougher to work its way into the general consumer market and win new converts.

There’s also the prospect of a certain degree of staleness. Since Steve Jobs stood down as CEO and later passed away, the iPad Mini – in reality, merely a miniature version of its existing tablets – has been the closest Apple has come to an original product. Everything launched under Tim Cook has been an update to earlier products.

So – what could come next? Apple’s recent history suggests that outside of actual computers, most of what it produces are just refined versions of existing products. The iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player; the iPhone wasn’t the first phone; the iPad wasn’t the first tablet.

Many expect the next move to be an Apple-manufactured TV – a high-spec, net-ready television with the existing Apple TV software built in – but if Apple ends the year without having invented a new market for itself to fill, the next twelve months could be tricky.

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