TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The 2012 gadget wars

As the year draws to a close Apple's time at the top looks shaky, while Android gains momentum and Microsoft makes its last stand.

Technology Spectator

As 2012 draws to a close so does Apple's reign as the undisputed king of the gadgets, as the Android hordes storm the gates.

Any twelve months seem like an eternity when it comes to the fast-moving gadget space, but 2012 has been a big year by anyone's standards. Last Christmas the iPhone 5 and the iPad Mini were still on the drawing board, as were Android flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, the HTC One X and their LTE counterparts. Meanwhile, Windows 8 was awaiting its consumer preview and Windows Phone 8 was still lurking in the shadows.

Figures fluctuate, but there's now little doubt that Android smartphone sales have surpassed Apple's iPhone. The latest Telsyte research says 44 per cent of Australia's 10 million active smartphones now run Android, creeping just ahead of iOS on 43 per cent. Other figures put Apple and Android tablet sales neck and neck as well.

The rise of Android is an amazing achievement for a platform which barely had double-digit market share two years ago, a painful position now held by Microsoft with Windows RT and Windows Phone 8. While Samsung's Galaxy range can take take much of the credit for Android's sales figures, and battling Apple's legal dogs of war, you shouldn't overlook the role of Google's own Nexus range of Android "reference" devices.

A reference device is basically standardised hardware designed to show off the potential of a new platform. It sets the standard to which other devices aspire and then hopefully build upon. Google's Nexus program has been in place for a few years but really took off in 2012 with the release of both the Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus 4 smartphone, the first devices to ship running Android 4.1 and 4.2 respectively. Google is showing no signs of slowing, with the 10-inch Nexus 10 tablet also on the way. If you want to be flexible with your dates you could even sneak in the Google Nexus smartphone from November 2011 which marked the release of Android 4.0.

Responsibility for manufacturing the Nexus reference devices has been shared between Google's long-time hardware partners Samsung, HTC, Asus and LG. The idea of a reference device is nothing new, but 2012's Nexus offerings stand out thanks to their impressive quality and their amazing price point.

Asus' $250 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet was a game changer which proved that cheap doesn't always equate to nasty when it comes to Android tablets. You might argue that Android still feels a little rough around the edges compared to Apple's slick iOS, but perhaps not enough to justify spending twice as much on a Cupertino wundertablet.

It's likely that the Nexus 7 finally forced Apple to get into the 7-inch tablet space, as a defensive play if nothing else. Obviously Apple has experimented with different tablet sizes for some time, but not until 2012 did it feel the need to actually respond to the Android mini tablet threat. It will be interesting to watch the 2013 figures to see if the iPad mini helps Apple claw back market share or if it simply cannibalises 9.7-inch iPad classic sales.

The next Nexus off the rank was LG's impressive Nexus 4 smartphone -- running the new Android 4.2 on a razor-sharp 4.7-inch IPS LCD screen. The Nexus 4 would set you back a mere $349 outright for the 8GB model or $399 for 16GB. That's assuming you could get your hands on one, as they were only available via the Google Play store and sold out quickly.

At that price you're entitled to expect an horrendous piece of junk that you wouldn't inflict on your worst enemy, but you'd be wrong. The Nexus 4 can stand toe-to-toe with the Samsung Galaxy S III, which will cost you twice as much. In a showdown the Galaxy S III comes out slightly ahead, but it's certainly not twice as good. While Android power users might pay top dollar for Samsung's flagship, and probably blow away Samsung and Telstra's bloatware in favour of a custom ROM, the Nexus 4 is the Android superphone for everyone else. It's perhaps the best value for money smartphone on sale today.

The Nexus 4 and 7 may have only been minor players in Android's sales battle with Apple, but they've thrown down the gauntlet to Google's various hardware partners. The Nexus range has raised the bar for the entire Android ecosystem, in terms of price and performance, which will continue to put pressure on Apple's iGadgets next year.

The standout gadget of 2012

The iPad mini was certainly Apple's standout gadget of the 2012, offering a much greater deviation from the norms than the iPhone 5. Both are slick gadgets which will appeal to the Apple faithful and continue to fight the good fight against Android. But with the iPad mini it seemed Apple had finally turned a corner and decided to start giving people want they wanted rather than simply telling them what they wanted.

A budget iPhone to rival the Nexus 4 could be the real game changer in 2013. It would seem to clash with Apple's gadget strategy, but this time last year you would have said the same thing about a smaller, cheaper iPad.

As these two behemoths struggled for the balance of power, Microsoft tried to reinvent itself in 2012 with the launch of the Surface RT tablet and Windows Phone 8 devices such as Nokia's Lumia 920.

They're both an impressive combination of software, hardware and cloud services, but Microsoft is failing to explain to tech punters why they should back these gadgets over their Apple and Android alternatives. To date the marketing strategy is to paint Microsoft's mobile gadgets as iPad wannabes, which is not the way to beat Apple at its own game. I'm yet to meet anyone outside of tech circles who actually understands the benefits and limitations of Windows RT. Buy a Microsoft Surface without appreciating these and you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

History may well look back at 2012 as the year when Microsoft made its last stand in the gadget space, with 2013 marking its rise or demise. That's not to say that Microsoft as a whole is in trouble, not while it's bankrolled by the twin cash cows of Windows and Office. But if this new range of smartphones and tablets fail to win over consumers and business users, it's hard to see how Microsoft could ever bounce back and pose a serious threat to Apple or Android beyond the desktop -- an unenviable position in the post-PC era. Microsoft may continue to throw money at the problem, but that could just prolong the agony if things don't turn around in 2013.

The fact Microsoft has decided so quickly to abandon its online-only sales strategy and put the Surface in stores could be a sign that all is not well, despite claims it's due to consumer demand. Microsoft will take a heavy hit if turns into another HP TouchPad fire sale, plus it will damage the wider Windows 8 image. The more advanced Surface Pro, running a full version of Windows 8, will be the one to watch in 2013. But its success hinges on Microsoft painting it as more than the iPad you have when you're not having an iPad.

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