TORONTO - Another year, another iPhone. More surprisingly, Apple fans were tempted with not just one new iPad, not two, but three, including the latest mini-sized tablet.
Research in Motion released new phones but not many noticed.
Microsoft was set to close 2012 on a big note but missed the mark.
There were baby steps made to introduce mobile commerce to Canadian consumers, while digital video viewing went mainstream.
Here's a look at the trends that emerged in 2012 and are likely to develop in the year ahead, and the busts of the past year.
APPLE FACES MAJOR CHALLENGES IN '13
It took a very long time for any other manufacturer to develop a tablet that came even close to Apple's iPad, but that gap has now closed considerably — particularly with solid tablets released this year by Asus and Samsung. Google struck a major pre-emptive blow against the iPad mini by pricing its small Nexus 7 tablet at just $209 and up. When the iPad mini was released months later, it looked expensive starting at $329. Apple will need game-changing hardware or software for its next iPad or it risks losing a large chunk of the tablet market to cheap — and just as capable — competition.
There's a similar smartphone threat as cheaper Google Android phones have overtaken the lower-end of the mobile market and the top-of-the-line models have proven to be real iPhone rivals. Windows phones have yet to catch on, although they've shown promise, and it remains to be seen if RIM can successfully re-establish itself as a mobile leader with its new BB10 operating system.
Apple will also have to rebound from the Google Maps controversy that forced the company to acknowledge that it made a mistake in dropping the popular app without having something just as good ready for its customers to use.
WEB VIDEO CONTINUES TO GROW, IS MOBILE NEXT?
Earlier this year, a survey suggested almost one in four Canadians were spending more time watching online video over the course of a day than time on the couch in front of their TV. Another 16 per cent said the time they spent watching content online and on TV was about the same. Between watching a few minutes of video at a time on YouTube, catching missed TV episodes on network websites, and streaming movies off Netflix, Canadians have learned there's plenty to watch even when there's nothing good on the dial.
A recent survey commissioned by the federal government found one in three Canadians said they now download or stream films online and 12 per cent said they do it either daily or at least once a week.
The same survey stated that 48 per cent of respondents had a smartphone and 24 per cent had a tablet they could watch video on. But mobile viewing is still being held back by data prices, which make streaming of high-quality video too pricey to be a daily habit. Luckily, coffee shops, fast food outlets and airports have begun to offer free WiFi that can be used to watch a TV show or YouTube clips while waiting around. If mobile pricing doesn't come down in 2013 — and it's not expected to — mobile viewers will have to hope that the encoding efficiency of video is drastically improved so less data is used per stream.
BREAK OUT YOUR DIGITAL WALLET
Starbucks regulars have probably noticed fellow customers occasionally handing over their smartphone to pay for their coffee or latte. It's one of the first popular examples of the digital wallet concept, electronically storing purchasing power on a smartphone. In the case of the Starbucks app, it's a link to a customer's prepaid credit that's commonly stored on a gift card. The latest Apple devices come loaded with something called Passbook, which allows users to store electronic copies of flight boarding passes, movie and sports tickets, travel points and coupons. The next step is a technology called near field communication, a way to securely send data wirelessly, including payment information for purchases. CIBC took a small step in that direction this past year by starting to offer digital wallet services for its customers with NFC-capable BlackBerrys. Royal Bank signalled it will be following suit and you can expect other financial institutions will add their names to the list in 2013.
Mobile e-commerce — shopping on a smartphone or tablet while on the go — is also expected to rise next year, although it may see somewhat slow growth in Canada. A poll commissioned by Google and released in May suggested only 20 per cent of Canadians had ever made a mobile purchase and only 16 per cent expected to boost their mobile shopping in the following year.
A YEAR TO FORGET
It was a tough year of waiting for those holding out hope for Research in Motion as its BB10 operating system, the company's last hope of staying alive in the smartphone space, was built up and prepped for an early 2013 release. Those who have had a sneak peek have suggested RIM has finally caught up and developed a slick mobile experience that may rival the iPhone and Android phones. But it doesn't appear there are enough consumer-friendly bells and whistles to sway Apple fans and the company is instead expected to focus on re-establishing its dominance in the corporate market. Meanwhile, it was a stomach-churning roller coaster ride for stock holders who watched their investment cut in half from the start of the year to the summer, before rebounding in the fall. But just when it looked like the ride was over, the company's latest earnings release spooked the market and prompted another steep stock decline of more than 20 per cent on Friday.
It could've been a monster year for Microsoft — with the huge releases of its Windows 8 PC operating system, a new mobile phone operating system, and the new Surface tablet — but all hit the market without much fanfare. Windows 8 was panned as a confusing, unfocused user experience that left many users with a frustrating first impression. Windows Phone was better received, particularly for its fresh, new approach to displaying apps, photos and social media content on its home screen. But it hasn't connected with the mass market yet. And despite a large marketing campaign, the first version of Microsoft's Surface tablet managed to attract some early attention but failed to be seen as a real iPad rival.
Related on HuffPost:
Motorola Droid Razr
NOVEMBER 2011 The beginning of Android Insanity 2012, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/16/motorola-droid-razr-review_n_1132830.html">original Droid Razr was released in November 2011</a>. It would be all but obsolete by February, with the release of the Droid Razr Maxx. <blockquote>Weight: 4.48 ounces Display: 4.3 inches, 256 ppi, 540 x 960 pixels Processor: dual-core, 1.2 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery 12.5 hours talk, 1,780 mAH Operating system: Android 2.3 Gingerbread (initially) </blockquote> Keep your eye on these specs: the operating system, the battery life, the processor speed, the RAM and the display size. All will increase as we move forward in time. Onward!
Google Galaxy Nexus by Samsung
DECEMBER 2011 At the beginning of the year, the Galaxy Nexus was probably <em>the</em> Android smartphone to own. It was the first phone with Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, and would remain so for several more months; it came with a large (at the time!) beautiful display and a quick processor. It was a summation of what Android could be and a preview of the direction of the OS, especially in terms of display size and quality. (Remember the number 316 pixels-per-inch on the display, or PPI; the higher the PPI, the better. You're going to see this number increase from the 200s to a mandatory 300+ number as 2012 progresses). <blockquote>Weight: 4.76 ounces Display: 4.65 inches, 720 x 1,280 pixels, 316 ppi Processor: dual-core, 1.2 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 17.66 hours talk time, 1,750 mAh Operating system: Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich -- first phone with ICS)</blockquote> Yes, as we celebrated New Year's Eve 2012, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/galaxy-nexus-features-release-date-samsung-google-android_n_1018863.html" target="_hplink">Galaxy Nexus was the superphone of superphones</a>. Until...
Samsung Galaxy Note
FEBRUARY 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: Screen size, screen size, screen size.</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 6.28 ounces Display: 5.3 inches, 800 x 1,280 pixels, 285 ppi Processor: dual-core, 1.4 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 26 hours, 2,500 mAh OS: Gingerbread, upgraded to ICS </blockquote> The 4.65-inch display on the Galaxy Nexus (previous slide) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/17/galaxy-note-review-samsung-smartphone-tablet-technology_n_1285219.html" target="_hplink">seemed positively gargantuan at the end of 2011</a>; today, it's something like mid-size, thanks to a revolution in large displays brought about by Samsung and its Galaxy Note. Popularly referred to as a "phablet" (half-phone, half-tablet), the Note is noteworthy (see what I did there?) mainly for its size. Its pixel density (ppi) remains relatively low, as does its weak battery life (though the Note featured a large battery, it did not prove large enough to power the first Note for a satisfactory length, per many reviewers). Mostly, you see, we're highlighting the Note for its mammoth, made-for-man-hands screen size. Though none but Samsung would match the sheer enormity of the Note (more on that to follow), competitors would follow Samsung's lead in the race to get huge. At this point, remember, Apple's iPhone had a 3.5-inch display; one way Android manufacturers differentiated themselves from that phone, certainly, was in screen size. While few were willing to top 4.3 inches before 2012, after New Year's Eve, every single Android superphone (save February's Droid Razr Maxx) would top 4.5 inches. Speaking of which...
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
FEBRUARY 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/02/battery-life-champions-smartphones-_n_2064599.html" target="_hplink">Battery life</a>. Also, a willingness by the manufacturer to release an entirely new smartphone just four months after its initial release, heralding an era of incredibly truncated phone release cycles. </strong> <blockquote>Weight: 5.11 ounces Display: 4.30 ounces, 540 x 960 pixels, 256 ppi Processor: dual-core, 1.2 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 21.6 hours, 3,300 mAh OS: Android 2.3 gingerbead (now ICS) </blockquote> This isn't really a tale of Motorola setting the pace for other Android makers so much as it is Motorola upgrading its own smartphone incredibly quickly, to the chagrin of early adopters. The Razr Maxx was a bit heavier and thicker than the original -- which had just come out, remember, four months before -- and the screen, processor and OS remained constant. The battery on the Maxx, however, was so much better than the battery on the original that it's really not even worth comparing the two. The battery life on the Razr Maxx remains, <a href="http://blog.gsmarena.com/nokia-lumia-920-goes-through-our-battery-tests-heres-how-it-did/" target="_hplink">by most measures</a>, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/02/battery-life-champions-smartphones-_n_2064599.html" target="_hplink">best of any smartphone you can buy today</a>.
HTC One X
MAY 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: An increase in screen size; one of the first phones with a quad-core processor, rather than a dual-core processor; shift to Android 4.0, or "Ice Cream Sandwich," rather than Android 2.3, or "Gingerbread."</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 4.55 ounces Display: 4.7 inches, 720 x 1,280 pixels, 312 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.5 GHz (international); dual-core, 1.5 GHz 1GB RAM (in America) Battery: 8.50 hours, 1,800 mAh OS: Ice Cream Sandwich</blockquote> HTC's flagship phone for the first half of 2012 was the One X, <a href="http://smartphones.findthebest.com/l/249/HTC-One-X">widely renowned for its top-notch camera</a> and excellent 4.7-inch screen. The One X <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/htc-one-x-review_n_1467562.html">was one of the first smartphones</a> to have a quad-core (as opposed to dual-core) processor, though that feature was not compatible with 4G LTE in the United States; it was also one of the earliest to ship with Android Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) rather some flavor of Android Gingerbread (2.3). The quad-core processor, the enlarged 4.70-inch screen and the terrific camera made the One X stand out (but only for about six months, until HTC released an even better One X phone).
Samsung Galaxy S III
JUNE 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: Bigger display; speed, touchscreen responsiveness improvements; faster processor; bigger battery.</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 4.69 ounces Display: 4.8 inches, 720 x 1,280, 306 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.4 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 22.50 hours, 2,100 mAh OS: Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich </blockquote> <a href="http://bgr.com/2012/12/04/the-best-smartphones-of-2012-verizon-wireless/" target="_hplink">Heralded by many as the best smartphone of the year</a>, the Galaxy S III does not, on paper, seem too impressive. Other phones have crisper displays, faster processors, better cameras and longer battery life. The Galaxy S III, however, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/20/galaxy-s3-review-samsungs_n_1612487.html" target="_hplink">packaged above-average numbers for all these specs</a>, combined with what was probably the smoothest touchscreen experience on an Android phone yet. It also packed in several intriguing, innovative apps available only from Samsung (see: <a href="http://www.samsung.com/global/galaxys3/smartstay.html" target="_hplink">Smart Stay</a>, <a href="http://www.samsung.com/us/support/supportOwnersHowToGuidePopup.do?howto_guide_seq=7042&prd_ia_cd=N0000003&map_seq=48157" target="_hplink">S Beam</a>) and a 4.8-inch screen that was viewed as humongous for a flagship phone when it was unveiled.
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD
OCTOBER 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: Yet another Razr in 2012! Operating system updated; larger and better display.</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 5.54 ounces Display: 4.7 inches, 720 x 1,280, 312 ppi Processor: dual-core, 1.5 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 21.00 hours, 3,300 mAh OS: Ice Cream Sandwich </blockquote> Surprise! Three flagship Droid Razr phones in under a year? It happened in 2012. Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx HD does not achieve the marathon battery life of the non-HD version, <a href="http://www.engadget.com/2012/10/19/droid-razr-hd-and-razr-maxx-hd-review/" target="_hplink">per tests</a>, though it still rates highly. The Maxx HD improves upon the Maxx in other areas, though: The screen is larger (4.7 inches vs. 4.3 inches); the display is far crisper (312 ppi vs. 256 ppi, a significant gap); and the processor is more powerful (1.5 GHz vs. 1.2 GHz). We can see the move to larger, crisper screens and bulked-up processors here; the camera on the Razr Maxx HD is also an improvement from previous generations.
Samsung Galaxy Note II
OCTOBER 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: Almost everything. </strong> <blockquote>Weight: 6.42 ounces Display: 5.55 inches, 720 x 1,280 pixels, 265 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.6 GHz, 2GB RAM Battery: 35 hours, 3,100 mAh OS: Android 4.1, Jelly Bean </blockquote> The big get bigger. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/05/galaxy-note-ii-review-samsung-_n_2010911.html">Eight months after the Note came the Note II</a>, with a larger and more beautiful screen, a faster processor, a better battery, a more competitive camera and a newer operating system. <a href="http://smartphones.findthebest.com/l/356/Samsung-Galaxy-Note-II" target="_hplink">Reviewers were impressed</a> with its absence of touchscreen lag and improved browsing speed as well. An improvement in almost every way on the first Note, the Note II not only boosted the acceptable screen size even closer to six inches, it also <a href="http://www.engadget.com/2012/10/08/samsung-galaxy-note-ii-review/" target="_hplink">shifted the perception of how fast an Android smartphone</a> could run. The quad-core processor? The 2GB RAM? These were about to become standard on Android superphones. Less than a year before, they represented pipe dreams.
HTC One X+
NOVEMBER 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: Updated just six months after release of original.</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 4.76 ounces Display: 4.70 inches, 720 x 1,280, 312 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.7 GHz, 1GB RAM Battery: 2,100 mAh OS: Android 4.1, Jelly Bean </blockquote> In America, the first One X came out in May. Six months later, <a href="http://www.engadget.com/2012/10/02/htc-one-x-plus-tegra-3-android-jelly-bean-sense-4-plus/" target="_hplink">HTC updated it with the One X+</a>. The processor increased from dual-core to quad-core; battery life was greatly improved; and the One X+ shipped with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, rather than Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
HTC Droid DNA
NOVEMBER 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: It's all about the display. </strong> <blockquote>Weight: 4.87 ounces Display: 5.0 inches, 1,080 x 1,920 pixels, 441 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.5 GHz, 2GB RAM Battery: 12.80 hours, 2,020 mAh OS: Android 4.1, Jelly Bean </blockquote> The final four great Android smartphones of 2012 measured in with displays of 5.5 inches, 4.70 inches, 5.0 inches (on this, the Droid DNA) and, again, 4.70 inches. <a href="http://www.redmondpie.com/htc-droid-dna-announced-features-a-monstrous-5-inch-1080p-display-lte-and-more/" target="_hplink">Here we can see what top-of-the-line tech specs will get you</a>: A 5.0-inch display with 441 pixels per inch, the highest ever on a smartphone; a quad-core processor, now seemingly standard on top-tier Android devices; a battery that measures above 2,000 mAh, to ensure that 4G LTE and the oversized displays don't diminish battery life too greatly; and a version of Android that is 4.1 Jelly Bean or higher.
LG/Google Nexus 4
NOVEMBER 2012 <strong>WHAT CHANGED: From one year ago, almost everything.</strong> <blockquote>Weight: 4.90 ounces Display: 4.7 inches, 768 x 1280 pixels, 318 ppi Processor: quad-core, 1.5 GHz, 2GB RAM Battery: 15.30 hours, 2,100 mAh OS: Jelly Bean 4.2 </blockquote> The Nexus 4 -- the followup to the Galaxy Nexus, and the fourth installment of Google's Nexus series, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Nexus" target="_hplink">which Google produces annually to show what an Android phone can be</a> -- is notable <a href="http://thenextweb.com/google/2012/10/29/google-announces-android-4-2-for-nexus-a-new-flavor-of-jelly-bean-with-gesture-typing-multiple-users/" target="_hplink">mostly for including Android 4.2</a>, which makes it the slickest and most responsive Android device to date. Otherwise, you see a lot more of what we have come to expect from Android smartphones in the latter half of 2012: weight below 5 ounces; a display in the upper-4-inch range with a ppi above 300; a quad-core processor with 2GB RAM; a battery above 2,000 mAh. Compared to the Galaxy Nexus, probably December 2011's best Android smartphone, each of these specs has been increased, amplified or advanced in a tangible, observable way. The camera: better. The display: bigger. The processor: faster. RAM: increased. Battery: longer-lasting. Those are the smartphone qualities, I think, that have been most obviously augmented over the year (as well as a manufacturer's willingness to quickly turn around a sequel). Obviously, this can translate into other, less numerical enhancements -- phones are "faster," "smoother," "more enjoyable." But if you are looking for the concrete areas of improvement, there they are. It leaves us to ponder, once again, two questions: In what ways will Android smartphones be constantly improving in 2013? And just how many Droid Razrs will Motorola release this time around?