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2012 in Review: Android

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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.”

Two new versions of Android, new flagship phones, new tablets—2012 was good to Android fans. While the rest of the mobile world didn’t exactly stand still, few ecosystems were the subject of as much news coverage and occasional drama as Android was. Let’s take a look back at what happened this year, and what 2012 meant for the future of Google’s mobile operating system.

2012 was a big year for Android smartphones. Anyway you slice it, the market for Google-powered phones grew by leaps and bounds, putting even more space between it and Apple’s iPhone. Microsoft’s Mango point release to Windows Phone failed to put a dent in Google’s march forward, and the once menacing Redmond software company found itself (again) rebooting its mobile operating system. RIM was… well, let’s not talk about RIM. Thorsten Heins has his work cut out for him.

The continuing success of Android phones is partially the result of carrier and manufacturer enthusiasm, they enjoy the ability to “enhance” their phone’s software, but it’s also the product of rapid upgrades to existing hardware. If you’re lucky, a new iPhone will come out about every twelve months with a faster processor and an extra millimeter on the top of the display. Microsoft’s Windows Phone chassis limits OEMs to just a few, frequently outdated, hardware platforms, and it’s updated on a release schedule that would make Apple yawn. Android? It supports anything you can write a driver for. The only limiting factor is the speed of the supply chain and, if you’re stuck on CDMA or have access to LTE, how fast carriers will approve new phones. The result? A relentless upgrade cycle that leaves phones obsolete inside of seven months and constantly has something new and improved to offer customers. Almost any spec you can imagine—RAM, clock speed, CPU cores, screen size, screen resolution, megapixels—is upgraded faster than ever. The products are sometimes a little ridiculous, just check out Lebron James’ kids playing with a Galaxy Note, but the strategy is paying off.

Android’s rapid upgrade cycle didn’t start in 2012, it’s been there almost since the very beginning, but this year saw it perfected. In years past upgrade cycles were complicated by an overabundance of SKUs—a symptom of an immature smartphone market that let manufacturers, especially OEMS such as Samsung that own the majority of their supply chain, try everything once, and sometimes twice. Hardware variants were released frequently, but the advantage over last year’s, or month’s, model wasn’t always clear. (Remember the Fascinate? How about  the Continuum? Or the Stratosphere? Or how about that Showcase?) That didn’t go away in 2012, especially around the low-end of the market, but Samsung and HTC worked hard to fix their SKU problem.

HTC lead the effort with the One Series, a line up of three or four phones (the number varied from region to region) that stretched from the top of the market to the very bottom. We reviewed the high-end One X, HTC’s flagship, and really liked it. With a 720p Super LCD 2 display, 1GB of RAM, and a Tegra 3 processor (S4 in LTE markets), the One X could have been a contender for the entire year. In 2010 or 2011 HTC would most likely have taken the One X hardware and spun off iterative updates with different names, cutting and adding features to properly market and differentiate “new” phones until their hardware was stale and sales were starting to slip. This year HTC did something a little different. Instead of the usual parade of fall spin offs, we got a spec bumped One X, the One X+, that kept the branding and pumped up the internals. At almost the same time, HTC launched two exclusive phones, the AU/KDDI J Butterfly and Verizon Wireless Droid DNA, with 5-inch, 1080p displays, to give the world a preview of what to expect from its next-gen One series in the spring. It was a mature, focused strategy that played to the strengths of their supply chain without giving in to the temptation to release a new phone every time quarterly numbers needed an extra boost.

Samsung started the year off with Galaxy S III, a quad-core smartphone with a 720p display, quad core Exynos processor, and 1 GB of RAM. Versions for LTE markets swapped out the Exynos SOC for an S4, and tapped on an extra GB of memory. Like HTC, Samsung managed to get the updated Galaxy to customers without having to spin out an endless series of carrier branded, often inferior, phones, something it had been known for in the past. The Galaxy S III’s US on all four major carriers, and a few of the smaller ones, was announced at a joint press conference. It was the first time a company besides Apple had managed to get all of its carrier partners together at the same time, and it’s an important milestone for Android as a platform and Samsung as a company. While Samsung didn’t use its newfound influence to push out a straight spec bump, they did push out an updated Galaxy S under another name. The Galaxy Note II, the successor to last year’s breakout hit Galaxy Note, is an essentially an upgraded Galaxy S III with a bigger screen, stylus, and the ability to compensate for a whole lot of problems.

Neither HTC or Samsung released earth shattering products this year, most of the changes they made were the logical, and profitable, next stage in Android’s hardware development. The phones Samsung and HTC released in 2012 seemed like reasonable evolutions of existing models, but other mobile industry insiders apparently didn’t sense them coming or couldn’t marshal the forces to keep up. Motorola and LG managed to release competitive handsets, but they were late to market and failed to match HTC and Samsung’s success. Their failure showed up on their balance sheets: While Samsung raked in the dough, barely stopping for a breather after being hit with a billion dollar judgement, and HTC managed to stay profitable despite worsening financials, almost every other OEM lost money. LG, despite launching the Optimus G and snagging the Nexus 4 contract, performed worse than HTC. They made a small profit in Q1, lost money in Q2, and made an even tinier profit in Q3 (at press time Q4 results still weren’t in).  Industry stalwart Sony, along with Motorola and everyone else, lost money.  If you don’t have Samsung or Apple’s vast supply chain expertise and brand cachet the best you can hope for in the smartphone market, it seems, are HTC’s tiny profit margins, a Motorola-style acquisition, or a more successful business to subsidize phone experiments. Otherwise, you would probably be better off making tablets.

The Android tablet market wasn’t exactly a great place to be in 2012, but it was certainly doing better than it had in prior years. 2011 was the year Android tablets broke into the mainstream, but they still couldn’t compete with the iPad. Instead, Amazon and Barnes & Nobles, the two biggest Android tablet manufacturers in 2011, focused on selling small devices that functioned as color e-readers. They were consumption devices, not productivity machines that could replace a casual customer’s laptop or go head-to-head with the iPad. 2012 changed that. With the release of Ice Cream Sandwich in late 2011, and the launch of Jelly Bean this summer, Google finally had a stock version of Android that was a better than a skin on tablets and could compete with iOS on the iPad. They launched the Nexus 7, a 7-inch stock Android tablet, at Google I/O in July, giving developers a high quality target to make applications for. The Nexus 10, a ten inch tablet with a display to die for, launched in time for Christmas. At the same time, Amazon and Barnes and Nobles pushed out successors to their popular tablets that were finally computers in their own right. The only thing keeping Android on tablets from going all the way? The pitiful paucity of tablet applications on Android. Android phones struggled for developer support for years, only recently catching up with the iPhone. It looks like Android tablets are in for the long haul as well. Phone software that looks and works great on a 4-inch display acts a little weird when it’s stretched to fit a seven-inch display, and it falls apart when it hits nine inches.

>>> Check This Out: 2012 in Review: Google <<<

What doesn’t fall apart is Google’s own software. It’s official: Android rocks, and it rocked hard in 2012. The beginning of the year saw the slow roll out of Ice Cream Sandwich, the first version of the Mountain View operating system Matias Duarte had a hand in designing. Just when it looked the manufacturers and carriers were going to catch up with Google’s Nexus devices, Google announced Jelly Bean: An update that did to Android’s internals what Ice Cream Sandwich did to its externals. Jelly Bean included Project Butter, an across the board performance overhaul. Before Project Butter Android performance was mediocre at best; after the update it was within spitting range of iOS and Windows Phone. Along with Project Butter Google unveiled Google Now, an intelligent assistant that combines a natural user interface with what Google knows about you to display useful information at opportune, and sometimes creepy, times. It’s like Siri, if Siri didn’t suck. Android 4.2 came a few months later, and brought with it even more features that had been missing from mobile operating systems. They still called it Jelly Bean, but they could have called it Key Lime Pie and no one would have complained. Lock screen widgets, panorama photography, gesture typing, multiple user accounts, and the best camera application ever made (EVER) all found their way into Google’s new operating system.

Android would have an unequivocal lead over every other mobile operating system, if Google could just find a way to get the latest version of Android onto a decent percentage of phones and tablets. Adoption of the latest version of Android is as slow as its ever been, and that’s a really big problem. Customers are left using software that’s older than it should be, application development is complicated, and phones are open to malicious attacks (even though they’re pretty damn rare, sensationalist CNET articles to the contrary).  Phones and tablets are expensive computers, and Android devices are computers constantly stuck on older hardware. Yeah, in the past electronics companies didn’t have an obligation to update the software on the hardware they sold, but smartphones and tablets are a different breed of device than computers sold in the past. Manufacturers explicitly guard against user upgrades, and often issue vague threats when their software is broken apart. That’s fine, to an extent, but if you aren’t going to let customers upgrade software themselves then you have an obligation to update it for them. Console manufacturers, for various reasons, don’t let users update software, but all of the major console manufacturers are committed to offering feature updates and patches on a regular schedule. The Xbox 360, a computer with a hardware stack a decade old, has had its entire operating system replaced multiple times. If phone manufacturers want to sell computers that function like game consoles they need to support them like consoles. Sony, the one Android manufacturer that makes a game console, actually looks like it’s taking that path with its phones. It releases multiple betas and publishes a public roadmap. They don’t always keep their promises, and they aren’t always the fastest at rolling out their updates, but they seem to have the right mindset, and that’s an important start.

Google’s own solution to the problem, building Nexus devices, has proven largely ineffectual. There’s hope for some Google success in the tablet market, but Google’s Nexus smartphones have never captured significant market share. The Nexus 4, their latest phone, isn’t likely to reverse the trend. That’s not to say it isn’t a great device: The hardware is the best designed we’ve ever seen on a phone whose name doesn’t start with “i.” Matias Duarte is an artist, a product visionary on par with Jony Ive, and the Nexus 4 is the best work he’s ever done. But the Nexus 4 doesn’t have the carrier support to challenge Windows Phone, and it will never have enough market share to change the way Android software is developed. Android enthusiasts can try all they want to explain away what’s happening, but Google’s ability to deal with the Android upgrade crisis will largely determine its ability to continue to innovate. Ceding control of their tablets to Amazon and Barnes & Nobles and control of their phones to Samsung and HTC means Google can’t roll out features when they need to, and any partner failure will be perceived as their own. What happens when the next version of Android includes some APIs, and Samsung cuts them out? What happens when the next Carrier IQ can’t be removed, and it’s actually malicious? The damage to Google’s reputation may be irreparable. The average newsroom doesn’t have the technical expertise to determine which code was written by which player—they see Google’s name on the original software stack and they implicitly attribute the problem to Mountain View. What happens when carriers cock block another Google Wallet, or a OEM buries another Google Now under some strange menu long press? Google couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to exercise the same level of control over Android that Microsoft does over Windows Phone, but they need to have some kind of control. Getting upgrades out to new phones and tablets in a reasonable amount of time would be a great place to start.

2012 wasn’t as big of a year for Android as it could have been. Compared to 2011, which saw the introduction of Ice Cream Sandwich, the start of LTE, the sale of Motorola, the coming of the Kindle Fire, and a slew of other important developments, it was pretty damn tame. Most of the major changes were product introductions and refinements, otherwise known as business as usual in the tech industry. But 2012 did serve to illustrate that the status quo in Android world, as cool as it is, can’t stay around. Samsung, even after the multi-billion dollar judgement against it, controls too large a share of Android profits for everyone to stay in business. Other manufacturers will have to start making money or get out of the phone business. If they do exit the mobile market, the Android market could become the Samsung market. That would only serve to exacerbate the tension between Google, the architect of open Android, and its partners. If you think software updates are slow now, wait until HTC or LG isn’t around to keep Samsung on its toes. But despite the continued structural problems, you should be excited for Android going forward. The software’s amazing, and Google’s just getting started. The Nexus program, or Google owned Motorola, could still pull stock Android into the limelight. Tablets are breaking out, and despite problems with developer support, Android offers a superior experience to iOS or Windows on a larger screen.

No matter what happens, 2013 is going to be a hell of a year for Android.

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