2012: The year Android truly challenged iOS

Android 'Jelly Bean,' Samsung's Notes, and Google's Nexuses finally delivered compelling capabilities as Apple stalled

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.

But nothing is forever. Apple refreshed every one of its products save the Mac Pro in 2012, bringing Retina display technology to the iPad and 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.

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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.

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