2012: The year Android truly challenged iOS
Nothing is forever. Mocked in its first year, Apple's iPhone became the standard-bearer of forward-thinking mobile users by 2008 and the corporate-standard smartphone in 2012. The iPad in 2010 instantly redefined the tablet market, rendering moot all the poorly designed wannabes that tried to get buyers' attention in late 2009. Today, the iPad dramatically dominates the tablet market, much as the iPod does the MP3 player market.
Apple refreshed every one of its products save the Mac Pro in 2012, bringing Retina display technology to the MacBook Pros, making the iMac sexily superthin, and reworking the iPad 2 into the highly portable yet useful iPad Mini. But save for the iPad Mini, these were sideshows to where the significant action was this past year: in the Android world.
The year began with the missing-in-action Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," proclaimed in November 2011 as the reinvention of Android that would both unify tablets and smartphones and propel the platform past iOS. But only Google's Nexus had the new Android, and device makers were mum as to when -- or if -- their existing products would get it. For the first four months of the year, "Ice Cream Sandwich" seemed to be a fantasy for all but the Nexus. Slowly, "Ice Cream Sandwich" began to appear on other devices, such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 tablet line. Although most Android devices still don't have "Ice Cream Sandwich," a significant minority -- about a quarter -- finally does. That began to put Android in a parity position with iOS for the first time.
Google upped the ante in June, with the announcement of the Nexus 7, a 7-inch media tablet made for it by Asus, that ran a newer version of Android: 4.1 "Jelly Bean." Designed for media playback, the Nexus 7 got a lot of people to pay attention to Android tablets, especially because Google was pitching a whole media ecosystem based on the Nexus 7, its Chrome OS-based Chromebox, and its Nexus Q gateway device to stream music and videos from Google devices to your TV. Google was taking on Apple's iTunes and Apple TV.
The problem was that the Nexus Q was so bad that Google pulled it before its release date, and it hasn't been seen since. But the notion of a media tablet stuck, and the Nexus 7's success gave Google the confirmation it needed to launch the Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 10 tablet in late 2012. Yes, the iPad Mini is a much better tablet than the Nexus 7, but the Nexus 7 got there first.
Unlike Samsung's market-leading Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II, and Galaxy Note 10.1, the Nexus devices were designed for mass appeal. But they sported the most current Android version ("Jelly Bean") and gave the middle Android market its first stars. Meanwhile, Samsung's envelope-pushing and fairly rapid (by Android standards) adoption of "Jelly Bean" in its flagship devices propelled the Android high end into iPhone and, to a lesser extent, iPad territory.
The long-running, complex patent war between Apple and the Android community (with Samsung as the most prominent face) also reinforced to the public that Samsung was an innovator -- why else would Apple be so intent on destroying it legally? Even though Samsung lost the biggest battle, in many ways, it may have won the war, at least for buyers' hearts.
As a result, Android has become more than the Windows of the mobile market -- the more popular but inferior rival to the Apple gold standard. Android is now a legitimate competitor on its own merits. That's a sea change from just a year ago.
However, not everything is rosy in Android land. Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility appears to have been a large waste of money. Held up by regulatory approval (notably by China) for months, the acquisition finally closed in spring 2012. Those six months of stasis seem to have frozen product development at Motorola, which has made only minor revs to its Android product line and has been very slow to provide first "Ice Cream Sandwich" and then "Jelly Bean." And perhaps to prove Motorola won't get an unfair advantage over other Android device makers, Google appears to have kept Motorola at arm's length to an extreme degree. For example, LG makes the Nexus 4, Asus the Nexus 7, and Samsung the Nexus 10 -- but Motorola makes no Nexus device.
Worse, Motorola's biggest advantage was its support of enterprise security, which could have pushed Android into the business world just as Apple's adoption of such technology in iOS 4.2 made iPhones and later iPads a force that IT could not deny. It's a big reason for iOS's dominance in business, providing the equivalent for IT of iTunes' hold on personal users. But Google shut down the 3LM group within Motorola Mobility that could have provided a common mechanism for all Android devices to be equal citizens in business alongside iOS devices. It's almost as if Google is unaware business usage informs personal usage as well.
Samsung understands that pattern and has brought such security technology into its Android devices -- becoming the "safe Android" option for businesses. Coupled with its greater commitment to innovation, Samsung's security efforts make it a force to be reckoned with across the mobile ecosystem, similar to Apple in scope. That may make for interesting dynamics as Samsung emerges as a powerful center of gravity in its own right, perhaps rivaling Google in public perception -- especially as Asus and HTC seem content to manufacture mere middle-of-the-road devices.
Although the Android platform made major leaps in 2012, Google has taken the opposite tack in its hardware strategy. Its original Nexus One and follow-up Galaxy Nexus (both made by Samsung) were meant to be design showcases, examples for the Android device makers to aspire to during a period of iffy Android hardware. But in 2012, Google seems to have changed course, with its three Nexus devices -- the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10 -- marked by poor quality and other compromises, and a fourth (the Nexus Q) that was bad enough to force Google to pull it from the market just days before its planned ship date. The new Google device strategy seems to be to design Wal-Mart-style devices for a mass audience -- strange, and zero threat to Apple.
Still, Google's Android platform made a major leap on the software side in 2012 while gaining a renewed hardware design energy from Samsung. As a result, Android today is not merely a mass-market winner but critical failure; instead, it's a winner in both the market and in innovation.