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2012 in Review: Google

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Join Current Editorials as we take a look back at the top trends, gadgets, and companies of 2012 in our year-end series “2012 in Review.”

Google enjoyed what I would call a blockbuster year in 2012. They made a few major acquisitions, released a successful line of new Android products, bolstered their internet services, and introduced their vision for the future of computing. In 2012, Google cemented their position as an unstoppable internet behemoth, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

sergeyglass

Image Credit: The Atlantic

The year started with Google unveiling a radical new wearable computer prototype: Google Glass. The “augmented reality glasses” were presented as a work-in-progress; something that would not be ready for public consumption for a few years, at least. Still, the concept of a computer in a pair of glasses, blending real world interaction with a UI overlay, is an interesting one to say the least, one which still has the nerd community buzzing. The project is being developed by Google’s “top-secret” X Labs, headed by co-founder Sergey Brin. Brin himself modelled Google Glass on-stage at Google I/O in June, and announced that attendees could preorder a special “Explorer Edition” prototype of the glasses for $1,599 that will ship in early 2013.

On April 24th, Google officially launched Google Drive following weeks of rumors. The Dropbox-like service gave users 5GB of free cloud storage, with the option to purchase more for a small fee. Google Docs was also rolled in to Drive, integrating the ability to create, edit, and store documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. Google Drive apps were immediately available for Mac, PC, and Android, and an official iOS app followed later.

In May, Google officially acquired Motorola Mobility. Outgoing CEO Sanjay Jha was replaced by long-time Googler Dennis Woodside, now tasked with charting Motorola’s future as a subsidiary of Google. However, since the acquisition, Motorola has been relatively quiet. They’ve released a few minor upgrades to their RAZR line, but nothing completely new. At the outset, Google claimed that Motorola would continue to operate as an individual Android OEM, and that Google did not plan to use the company to produce their own Android hardware. However, a recent report from the Wall Street Journal reveals that Google and Motorola are producing two new flagship Android devices to rival Apple’s iPhone and iPad; the mysteriously codenamed “X Phone” and “X Tablet”, that will see the light of day in 2013. Regardless, the Motorola we once knew disappeared in 2012, and became a part of the Google Empire.

Nexus7_reviewGoogle brought their A-game to the annual I/O Conference in June, announcing a major new version of Android and two new Nexus devices. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean was focused on refining the Ice Cream Sandwich experience, namely through an initiative called “Project Butter” that improved graphics performance and smoothness across the OS. Jelly Bean also introduced Google Now, a competitor to Apple’s Siri voice assistant which, along with voice search, displays information “cards” tailored to your life.

The Nexus 7 was officially announced at Google I/O, following weeks of rumours that Google was working on a low-cost Nexus tablet. The 7-inch tablet was announced with a starting price of $199, making it one of the cheapest tablets on the market, and undercutting Apple’s cheapest iPad (at the time) by $300. Despite it’s low price, the Nexus 7 was a powerful device, packing a 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB or 16GB of storage, a 1280 x 800 HD display, and a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera. By Nexus standards, the Nexus 7 has been a popular device that has sold well and been praised by critics.

The last device announced at I/O was the ill-fated Nexus Q, which Google billed as a “social streaming device”. The Nexus Q was essentially a glorified DLNA adapter that allowed streaming music, movies, and YouTube videos from an Android device, through “the cloud”, and finally down to the TV. The social aspect was a feature that allowed multiple Android-toting users to create collaborative playlists together. The device, which didn’t even feature an on-screen UI, was announced with a retail price of $299 – three times as expensive as the $99 AppleTV, which offered much more functionality. Google eventually cancelled the Nexus Q, but decided to reward those who preordered with a free prototype of the device. Interestingly, the Nexus Q’s that did exist were fully assembled in the U.S.A.

On July 16th, Google lost longtime employee and high profile executive Marissa Mayer, who jumped ship to become the new CEO of Yahoo!.

In late July, Google acquired popular email application Sparrow. CEO Dom Leca announced the move on Sparrow’s official website, stating that the team was joining Google to “accomplish a bigger vision” for Gmail, and the existing Sparrow apps for Mac and iOS were effectively discontinued. Both Sparrow for Mac and iPhone are still available to download, and continue to be updated with important security and bug fixes. Since the acquisition, we haven’t heard much from the Sparrow team, or seen much of their influence in Gmail at all. Hopefully this will change next year. In the meantime, I’m holding on to Sparrow until such day as it stops working entirely (and I hope that day never comes).

A few days later, Google Fiber was unveiled in Kansas City. Google’s first foray into the ISP business promised area residents 1000 Mbps uploads and downloads – that is crazy fast, for the non-nerds among us. Users enjoy unlimited usage with no bandwidth cap, and 1TB of free cloud storage on Google Drive. Google is also offering a TV service as part of Fiber, which includes a Google TV set top box, and a Nexus 7 tablet which acts as the remote. The service is only available in select neighbourhoods based on “preorder” demand, with packages consisting of Internet + TV for $120/month, or just Internet for $70/month. Google Fiber officially went live in mid-November. Google plans to continue expanding into new neighbourhoods in 2013, and hopefully soon, more cities.

Nexus4_anglesIn late October – after postponing their big launch event due to Hurricane Sandy – Google finally launched their 2012 Nexus phone, the gorgeous Nexus 4. Initial reaction was mixed, mainly because the phone lacks LTE, which reviewers agree is a major upset in 2012 (although those of us lucky enough to live in Canada can actually “hack” the Nexus 4 to connect to LTE). Lack of LTE aside, the Nexus 4 is every bit a modern phone, with a 4.7-inch 1280 x 768 display, 1.5GHz quad-core processor, and an 8 megapixel camera. The Nexus 4 seems to be a hit among consumers, as it has been continually sold out on Google Play since it launched – no surprise given the phone starts at just $299 unlocked.

googleonios_2Google also began a love affair with iOS in 2012, starting with two major app launches at I/O. The first was the previously promised Google Drive app, which at the time served only as a document viewer, though has now gained editing capabilities. The second was Chrome for iOS, a major and somewhat unexpected announcement. Chrome for iOS featured tab syncing, a unique UI, and an easily accessible Incognito mode. The iOS love continued in September with the launch of a new YouTube app for iPhone, after it was previously confirmed that the native YouTube app would be cut from iOS 6. The new app allowed Google to monetize using pre-roll video ads, and provide a YouTube experience more in-line with Android and the web. Gmail for iOS was relaunched in early December with a completely redesigned UI, new features, improved search, infinite inbox scrolling, and multiple account support. The redesign was lauded as being the best Gmail experience on iOS, despite the fact that it is still mostly a web-app in a wrapper. Google’s biggest iOS launch of the year came just a few weeks ago, on December 12th, when Google Maps finally returned to the iPhone. We all know the story of Apple Maps – how Google Maps was unceremoniously removed from iOS, and replaced by Apple’s inferior offering – which made the launch of a new Google Maps app for iOS a major event in the tech community. The new Google Maps features a very simple UI, and introduces new features like turn-by-turn navigation, transit and walking directions, and vector map tiles for fast loading and performance.

2012 certainly was a good year for Google, as they improved on nearly all of their existing products, introduced some new ones, welcomed some new team members, and expanded their reach into the pockets of iPhone users. Looking forward to 2013, they’ve got a lot of success to follow up. Of course there’s the aforementioned “X Phone” and “X Tablet” to look forward to, which may or may not be 2013′s big Nexus devices. The Sparrow team is likely hard at work improving Gmail, both on the web and (hopefully) on Android and iOS. Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie is on the horizon, though we’ve heard nary a peep about what the update will bring. The success Google enjoyed in 2012 will surely continue into 2013 and beyond, and I’m excited to see what next year brings from the gang in Mountain View.

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