Technology has never been more important than it is today, and it has shaped 2012 in ways that few could have imagined at the beginning.
That’s not just thanks to the gadgets that we buy with more enthusiasm than almost any other nation on Earth – whether it’s the Ulster Bank computer problems that saw branches opening on Sundays for panicked consumers, or the growing concerns over the impact that cyberbullying is having on our young people, every aspect of our lives is becoming connected to the web.
But 2012 saw some odd trends too – you may have heard a lot of doom about BlackBerry, but this morning, just as it announces new results, its shares are basically unchanged year-on-year; Apple’s are up 40 per cent. Google, meanwhile, has expanded into areas that see it challenge Apple much more directly, from music to tablets, while Samsung, the world’s most popular brand, has finally called a truce in the lawsuits it’s fought with Apple.
Whatever the of hardware, though, the overall trend is for a more connected world: Facebook’s floatation, although not a financial success yet, shows that these are grown-up businesses. The launch of Netflix in Ireland indicates that globally, the web is a global platform that people need for entertainment and day-to-day-living, while government and businesses need it more than ever for essential services. No wonder both it and those gadgets have been more controversial – and popular – than ever before.
A host of companies have had a pretty disastrous year – Nokia, Nintendo, Sony and Sharp have all struggled as they’ve been hampered by late or imperfect products. Exacerbating this is a product cycle that’s been speeding up and consequently hastening decline. But it’s BlackBerry that has caught most of the negative headlines because its fall has been so precipitous.
Indicative of their problems is that the software that should save them, BB10, should be out already but now won’t launch until January.
If you believe the stock market, however, the firm may well recover thanks to the loyalty of a huge number of businesses and government agencies around the world that are wedded to the platform. New devices, too, have been popular with networks who eagerly want a rival to Apple and Google’s Android. It’s a brave bet, but BlackBerry’s not crumbled yet. MW
It’s been a stellar year for Samsung, and it couldn’t have had a better ending: the firm was named as the most recognisable smartphone brand in the world, bolstered by its performance among other areas such as laptops, TVs and fridges, as well as finally reaching a truce with its long-time rival Apple.
The end of such messy litigation over patents should benefit consumers hugely as it leaves companies free to concentrate on innovation, but the problems appeared to be dwindling anyway. The S3, Samsung’s flagship phone, sold better than ever and introduced new features – it knows when you’re looking at it – that allowed the company to maintain its ruthless momentum. The only downside is that that means, surely, the decline of some of its Android rivals. Interestingly, however, Samsung still also makes some of the best Microsoft laptops and phones too. MW
Microsoft and Surface
This was always going to be a crucial year for Microsoft – it was launching a new version of its Windows operating system, a new version of its phone software and announcing the updated Office software that will come next year. And all this in the teeth of an increasingly dominant Apple driving the adoption of tablet computers that fundamentally change what Microsoft needs to do to compete. But who would have guessed that the most exciting aspect would be a keyboard?
And yet it was the Surface, a Windows 8 tablet with a keyboard just millimetres thick, that captured the imagination. That and a helicopter over London's Tower Bridge in a stunt to launch the latest game for Microsoft’s Xbox console.
Perhaps, then, the Seattle-based giant is coming through the difficult times of previous years into a brave new era when it may even become a little bit cool. MW
Google has had the most mixed year of all the technology giants of 2012: on the one hand it has launched largely well-received devices, including a smartphone, the Nexus 4, that shows what can be done at the relatively low price. It has also launched rival services to Apple’s iTunes and maintained the startling momentum that makes its Android operating system the world’s most poular.
It’s maintained its cool, too, with products such as Google Glass, glasses which project additional information straight onto the wearer’s lenses.
But there has been a difficulty too: Google is built on income from search advertising, but that’s declining, and the company has under fire in the UK, being branded a tax avoider for paying just £6m in tax on sales of around £3bn. The company hit back though, emphasising it pays every penny of tax the UK Government makes it, and that it contributes in a range of other ways. MW
In March, launching the third generation iPad, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said his company was just getting started. By December Apple had, among other things, launched a new iPhone, new iMac, new MacBook Pros and - in a surprising move - released an iPad mini and a fourth generation iPad.
Apple’s mobile devices, especially the elegant iPhone 5 and iPad mini, still set the benchmark for gadget design and usability but the company faces stronger competition. Google Android devices, especially those by Samsung, now represent viable alternatives to Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
However, the September release of iOS 6, Apple’s new mobile operating system, resulted in a major mis-step. Apple Maps, replacing the Google maps installed on iOS devices since the first iPhone in 2007, were deeply flawed. The result was a public apology from Tim Cook and an executive restructuring. The big question for 2013 is how the new team will keep Apple from losing momentum. SR
Who owns the internet?
The internet may have made the world a smaller place, in communication terms, but the same territorial concerns and power struggles remain. Chief among those is who controls the internet in the first place. At the recent talks hosted by the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations, Britain and America refused to sign a draft treaty intended to update an international telecoms agreement signed in 1988. Western countries were concerned that China, Iran and Russia could seek to use the treaty to increase online censorship. For their part, China, Iran and Russia objected to attempts to make telecoms access a human right.
The US and many big internet firms, such as Google, want minimal state interference in the running of the internet and they seem to have got want they want. At least for now. SR
As technology characters go, they don’t get much bigger than Kim Dotcom. The German-born entrepreneur emerged this year as the human face of the entertainment industry’s digital problems. He was arrested and his New Zealand mansion was raided in January over Megaupload.com, the file sharing website he ran, allegedly at a cost of more than $500m to film and music copyright holders.
He still faces potential extradition to the United States, but Mr Dotcom, who changed his name from Schmitz and has convictions for computer hacking and insider dealing, has used his gift for self promotion to keep his legal battle in the news. John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, was forced to publicly apologise after it emerged the country’s spies had unlawfully tapped Mr Dotcom’s phone and internet connection.
Mr Dotcom is also working on his online comeback in 2013, with a new file sharing website that he says will be immune to legal attacks. CW
The collapse of systems at Ulster Bank for several days in June offered a stark reminder of how dependent we are on technology. A botched update to scheduling software meant that customers’ did not get paid, were unable to pay their bills and could not withdraw cash. Some complained they could not buy food or charge their electricity meter.
It emerged that Ulster Bank's parent company RBS had off-shored its technology maintenance staff, and it was reported that the incident was the fault of an “inexperienced operative” in India. Stephen Hester, the bank’s chief executive, was forced to make public apologies and denied the failure was the result of cost-cutting. “Things go wrong. Things go wrong in technology,” he said. CW
The most anticipated technology floatation since the dotcom madness at the turn of the century proved to be a disappointment for investors. Facebook shares opened in May at $38, valuing the firm at more than $100bn, and promptly tumbled to less than $20.
There has been a partial recovery since but fundamental questions about the social networking business remain, despite Facebook passing one billion members this year. In particular, the rapid shift to mobile internet usage presents the firm with a major problem, given it makes almost all its money from its full website and almost nothing from apps.
Mark Zuckerberg has not been blindsided by the change, however, and has made a series of moves to improve Facebook's mobile offering. It bought Instagram, the photo filtering app, for $735m from under Twitter’s nose, and has made big improvements to its own smartphone apps, as well as beginning to sell advertising within them. CW
Netflix streaming accounts for a third of peak American internet traffic, and is growing rapidly here after this year saw the arrival of the film and television on demand service in Ireland. Although its catalogue is fairly weak at the moment, comprising mostly old and obscure films, Netflix made enough impact to prompt a rare defensive move from BSkyB, which introduced its own internet-only service, Now TV.
In the United States Netflix is an increasingly powerful force, having recently signed its first “first run” movie rights deal with a major studio, Disney. In 2013
The service’s success is emblematic of the shift to cloud-based media consumption. CW
By Shane Richmond, Matt Warman and Christopher Williams Telegraph.co.uk