2012: ZDNet's definitive guide to the year in tech

A look back at the hot topics, major discoveries, and technological breakthroughs of 2012: from privacy to surveillance, major product launches, successes and catastrophes.
1 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Apple's hits record $700 price, plummets back to $500 mark

For the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant, 2012 has brought Apple some extreme ups and deep lows. In September, just days after the launch of the iPhone 5, Apple hit the historic $700 a share milestone, which valued the company at close to $655 billion. That was September, however, and a lot can change in the space of fifty days -- and indeed it did.

While Apple was, for a time, the hottest tech stock in town, the firm really felt the pinch after it fell more than 3 percent in just one day. After management changes and negative analyst notes, the company's share price plummeted back to close at the $500 a share mark, a low the company had not seen since February, earlier this year.

2 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Barack Obama re-elected U.S. president; social media engagement rockets

This year's U.S. Presidential election was not just a single day in November. It spanned the best part of two years. Towards the end of campaigning, political engagement was at record levels thanks to social media's presence. With catchphrases and deep-rooted satire, many took to the Web to experiment with the rise of meme culture to roast the politicians. The spoofs and the satire became almost the highlight of the entire event. 

There was, however, a lot of talk about what might happen if New York and New Jersey -- two states hit badly by Hurricane Sandy -- could not vote. But Americans in both states still managed to head to the polling booths and cast their vote, despite the widespread power and cellular outages across the two states.

Eventually, after more than 24 hours of solid speculation and a record amount spent on political spending, the Democrats sailed to victory. One bright spark was Nate Silver, a writer for The New York Times who was already well-known for his political Website, 538.com. Silver even became the story after he predicted the winner of every single state correctly

It wasn't all smooth sailing, however. After Barack Obama won his second term to the White House, anti-Obama racism flooded Twitter, particularly from the states of Alabama and Mississippi.

3 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Facebook launches the biggest technology IPO in history; flops miserably within days

Facebook, the world's largest social network with more than one billion members, filed to trade publicly earlier this year. With an initial public offering (IPO) price of $38 a share, it would be one of the largest IPOs in technology history. The company's peak market cap stood at more than $104 billion and was one of the most anticipated events of 2012.

It was all smooth sailing until the company actually launched. Trading was delayed by half an hour due to technical problems on the Nasdaq -- traders didn't know if their orders had gone through or not -- but the company's stock shot up to $45 a share. Within a few days, the company tumbled below the $30 a share mark, and 70 days later, it fell below the $20 a share mark. Within only a couple of months, Facebook's shares had halved. 

Morgan Stanley, the primary IPO underwriter, ended up with a $5 million fine over the botched initial public offering, but considering its $32.4 billion in revenue during 2011, it was barely a slap on the wrist.

4 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Apple sees record iPad sales, but suffers a month of screw-ups

Apple really suffered during the final months of the year. From mid-September, things started to go badly wrong. First of all, Hurricane Sandy had a devastating effect on the Eastern seaboard, which hit major metropolitan areas at the same time that the new iPad mini was released. Sales were not as good as expected as a result of the "superstorm," but Apple was still able to achieve a "weekend record" of three million iPads during the first few days of the product's launch. 

iOS 6, the firm's latest mobile operating system, came with a serious headache all of its own: Maps. The in-house application that was meant to replace Google Maps was terrible; so much so, Apple chief executive Tim Cook even apologized for the screw-up. Weeks later, the company announced a massive management shake-up that led to the departure of Scott Forstall, the man in charge of Apple's iOS division.

Apple's retail chief John Browett was also ousted from the company after he not only failed to crack China -- a key market for Apple to dip into -- but also led to a near-coup of the firm's retail store staff after he said they would face reduced worker hours and even layoffs. One of his final acts at the company was backtracking on the changes, before he was summarily booted out.

5 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

U.K. flips on the 4G LTE switch

Many European countries already have 4G services, and the next-generation mobile network speeds are common across the U.S. and Canada.

But the humble United Kingdom, a small island off the European mainland, was stuck in the cellular dark ages with 3G mobile broadband speeds. Eventually, after constant bickering and the threats of lawsuits by various mobile network operators, the U.K. government intervened and said 'enough was enough,' and the path was paved to prepare the population for faster cellular networks. 

In September, EE was born as the first 4G LTE network in the country, aligning it with much of the Western world. It would still be a few weeks before LTE services were enabled and the switches were flipped firmly in the 'on' position. But the U.K. could -- at long last -- call itself a 4G country.

6 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

State-sponsored Flame malware hits Middle East

Two years after Stuxnet infected Iranian nuclear facilities and damaged the country's ongoing nuclear program, malware called Flame was next to cause damage and disruption. Dubbed 'Flame' due to referenced words in fragments of code analyzed by Kaspersky Lab, the Russian antivirus and online security firm found the malware to be the "most complex threat" ever discovered. According to Kaspersky, the state-sponsored malware "redefines… cyberwar and cyberespionage."

Flame targeted machines in Iran, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Sudan, Syria, and others in the region, and was far more sophisticated than Stuxnet in a number of ways. Instead of just targeting the physical infrastructure of the network, it was designed to steal data and collect audio and video content from webcams and microphones.

Who or what was behind Flame remains unknown. While speculation remains rife around the circumstances of Stuxnet and similar state-sponsored malware attacks, some words in the code suggests an English-speaking country may have been behind the attack.

7 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Microsoft's Windows chief out, Apple's iOS chief (also) out

Within the space of a month, Microsoft let its Windows president Steven Sinofsky walk, while Apple replaced its iOS chief Scott Forstall -- both for similar, yet different reasons: they weren't playing nicely with the rest of their respective companies.

Sinofsky, who led the division that built Windows 8, left the company as part of a mutual agreement. Forstall, who headed up the unit that develops the software for the popular iPhone and iPad devices -- was all but pushed out of the company. He will stick around at Apple to advise chief executive Tim Cook until 2013, but will then be set free into the wider world.

It was Forstall's final decision to evict Google from the top-floor executive suite at Apple HQ and replace the mapping app with Apple's own in-house service. That program was beyond a flop. It was riddled with errors and deluged with criticism from both the media and end-users alike.

8 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Apple v. Samsung ends in $1bn damages; U.K. court takes a different turn

The biggest trial of the year was between the two mobile super-giants: Apple v. Samsung. It ended with Samsung having to pay more than $1 billion in damages to the iPhone and iPad maker after its products were found to have "copied" the iPad's rounded rectangle design. 

However, the U.K. case took an entirely different turn: Apple lost, and Samsung prevailed. Apple was forced to put a notice on its Web site and in newspaper advertisements to 'apologize.' When it ran a statement on its Web site, Apple embellished the statement with additional, non-court sanctioned comments, which landed the firm in even more trouble. It then had to formally -- and clearly -- apologize a second time around, and eat a boatload of humble pie.

But the Apple v. Samsung news wheel continues to spin, and though the trial is over, there are plenty more nooks and crannies that the litigious companies can find themselves in, in the near future.

9 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Google acquires Motorola Mobility for $12.5bn; price tag rises post-sale

After going back and forth to regulators around the world, the Chinese government finally accepted the deal that would see Google buy smartphone maker Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in order to acquire more than 17,000 patents. Google needed the patents -- above all else -- to help fend off litigation by Apple and others, who continue to sue Android-powered smartphone makers, such as Samsung, while avoiding suing Google flat-out.

Because the now Google-owned division was struggling financially, Google had no option but to restructure the entire business. All in all, the cost of the sale was bumped by a further $340 million -- pushing the overall price tag close to $13 billion.

For now, we still have no idea if the sale was worth the full almost $13 billion, but the courts will soon decide. In the Microsoft v. Motorola (Google) legal spat, a court will decide how much Microsoft should pay Google in royalties for patents that it owns.

Ultimately, this trial will determine how much the Motorola patents are actually worth, meaning Google has far less leverage with its other patent partners that could lead to the search giant generating far less in deals with other smartphone makers.

10 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

"Don't use Huawei, ZTE," says U.S. House committee

That was the simple message by the U.S. House Intelligence Committee after the two Chinese telecommunications equipment makers were not proven of any wrongdoing, but enough suspicion fell on the firms to err U.S. businesses on the side of caution. The firm even said -- albeit in a self-commissioned report -- that it was not engaging in espionage in any country it operates in, and isn't under the thumb of the Chinese ruling party. 

Despite the problems stateside, British Prime Minister David Cameron still welcomed Huawei chief executive Ren Zhengfei into Downing Street after Huawei pledged to invest $2 billion into the U.K. economy. Some weeks later, a U.K. parliamentary committee said it would launch its own probe into the Chinese technology giant's relationship with the U.K.'s largest telecoms provider, British Telecom (BT).

Only months after the U.S. House gave its verdict, a Huawei-shaped hole appeared in the U.S. telecoms market, and Helsinki, Finland-based Nokia Siemens Network -- with its own money troubles -- was ready to fill that gap as a safe bet for U.S. companies.

11 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Hurricane Sandy devastates East Coast; wreaks havoc on infrastructure

The worst storm to hit the East Coast in years, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey the hardest. Infrastructure was hit badly and many low-lying data centers were damaged by the flooding. Web sites suffered massive outages and cell networks struggled to continue transmitting. Power outages hit many for weeks. For three long days, Manhattan was practically in the Dark Ages.

It took the cell networks -- including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- more than a week to get cell service up and running again. The storm caused 25 percent of the country's cell masts to collapse or stop working in the affected states. Ultimately quarterly earning reports were dinged.

That said, some glimmer of hope arrived when AT&T and T-Mobile joined forces to alleviate some of the pressures on consumers and businesses by allowing their subscribers to share each others' network while cutting the roaming costs.

12 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Apple launches iPhone 5

Apple was expected to launch the iPhone 5 in one of the most anticipated events of 2011, but eventually  didn't happened until 2012. Many thought that the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant would release the media-dubbed 'iPhone 5' last year, but instead released a the iPhone 4S which was built with minor revisions from the most recent model, the iPhone 4. How was Apple going to maintain its edge in the smartphone market?

With a 4-inch smartphone offering next-generation 4G LTE speeds. But, after the event, many media members and company analysts were left disappointed. Many consumers took to social media networks to air their frustration, and complain that innovation was plummeting in the company.

Apple ultimately suffered a loss during its fourth quarter earnings report. However, with 15 percent of the company's revenue in China, Apple launched the iPhone 5 in the world's most populated country in December.

13 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Google hit by U.S., EU antitrust suits

While the lead-up has taken the best part of two years, authorities on both sides of the Atlantic came close this year to concluding ongoing antitrust suits against search giant Google for alleged anti-competitive behavior

Formal probes were opened against Google for allegedly 'cooking' its search results in order to favor its own services ahead of others, while pushing rival search results down the page. The investigation received more than a dozen formal complaints from a bevy of companies, including Microsoft-owned search engine Ciao!, Foundem, eJustice, Expedia, and TripAdvisor. The search company also allegedly "copied" content from other services without prior consent, and has been under the watchful eyes of both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the European Commission for the past year.

(The U.S. FTC also dinged Google after the search company was found to have bypassed the security settings on the Apple Safari browser earlier this year. Google settled for $22.5 million, which by our count, could have been recouped by Google in just five hours.)

Recent reports suggest that both the U.S. FTC and EU authorities will announce their plans to settle with the search giant in early 2013. Google can be fined up to 10 percent of its global annual turnover if it is found in breach of European law, which could amount to as much as $4 billion in fines. 

14 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Drones, drones, drones: Surveillance on the rise

Drones for surveillance, drones for combat killing. 2012 has seen a rapid increase in the number of drone strikes on targets in Afghanistan -- around 450 since the year's beginning -- and may other locations around the world.

But, looking further afield to unmanned aircraft, not only are intelligence services using drones in the field and afar, domestically the number of police forces using drones are on the rise. To make matters even more complicated, the ethical issues of unpiloted aircraft hovering overhead are on the rise. Even the general public is getting in on the action

But not all drones have been used for surveillance purposes. Earlier this year, Magnet-link sharing site and former torrent haven The Pirate Bay said it was planning to put its servers into low-orbit 'drones' in order to prevent them from being seized by authorities. How that will pan out, exactly, we may have to wait until 2013 or beyond. 

15 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

The PC is dead. Long live the PC!

This year saw the all-but-inevitable death of the traditional PC. The debate argues around whether or not the PC makers can survive with the rise of post-PC devices, like smartphones, tablets, and 'phablets' -- or part-phones, part-tablets. But, the final nail in the coffin was when figures suggested that PC shipments were expected to (and subsequently did) decline for the first time in a decade.

Ultrabooks failed to make that much of an impact, while PC industry rival Apple was shipping more iPads than any other PC manufacturer was shipping PCs each quarter. It was a tipping point that was reached where the mere tablet had grabbed the PC industry by the throat and continues to strangle it. Will PCs survive? Yes, for the next few years, but the post-PC era is certainly upon us.

16 of 24 Flickr.

Privacy: I can has none?

Over the past year, we have seen a steady increase in privacy-related issues. From Google's privacy policy change that had the European Union up in arms in anger after the search giant consolidated its 60-plus policies into one, allowing data to be shared between services. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of the user's privacy -- all the way through to surveillance state culture and the constant issues that Facebook poses.

While the balance is becoming increasingly hard to find -- it's there, but it's unique to everyone -- privacy remained one of the most talked about topics of the year, and will likely rage on for some time to come. 

17 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Windows 8 launched: Mixed reaction, first quarter will reveal all

Microsoft launched Windows 8 -- at long last -- in October. So far, the figures suggest that consumers and businesses are responding well to the new Surface tablets, but overall sales figures will take time to determine and decipher. 

Analysts remain tepid on the software's impact and exactly how businesses and enterprises will embrace the brand new user interface, without the Start menu and (most of the time) the traditional desktop -- or not. That said, Microsoft's latest operating system has been reportedly off to a good start -- selling more than 40 million licenses in the first few weeks of the software's launch, according to Microsoft.

However, some companies are yet to bite down on Windows 8 for fear that they would be wasting their time. In some cases, like Google, there just aren't many people using the software to justify building apps for the platform.

PC sales have this year fallen dramatically as a result of not only a wider industry slowdown, but also as a result of the release of Windows 8. Many consumers and businesses avoid upgrading until the new software was out on the market. Microsoft's hope is that it can revive the PC market; otherwise the company could end up falling down from a domino-like effect. Watch this space for 2013. 

18 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Rise in OS X-targeted malware as Flashback infects 600,000 Macs

Windows malware has, at least in recent years, been on the rise. But, due to the popularity of the rival Apple Mac platform and a steady albeit modest increase in desktop market share, malware writers and hackers are increasingly turning away from Windows to attack the Mac platform.

The Flashback Trojan was the latest malware to hit Apple Mac machines running OS X. It ultimately led to Apple removing the "virus-free" slogan from its Web site and marketing strategy after the highly publicized malware attack. More than 600,000 Macs were infected by unknowingly installing the Adobe Flash-lookalike software. Apple acted slowly to the mass infection, but eventually dished out an update that would patch Mac machines.

19 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

NASA lands Curiosity on Mars; alien life yet to appear

For years, we have wanted to see what was going on, on planet Mars. We finally -- after years of failed attempts to land a craft on the red planet -- landed the Curiosity land rover on the dusty world. The craft 'tweeted' from the planet's surface with an unfortunate innuendo, but soon got to work.

In just a matter of days, the remote-controlled robot was analyzing soil samples to determine whether or not there was in fact life on Mars (cue: Bowie). Mystery still surrounds what the Curiosity may (or may not) have found -- rumors began to swirl after NASA said it had a surprise in store, but then hedged and dumbed down any discovery "for the history books. "

20 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

2012 gets nostalgic: Animated GIFs and Tesla museums

2012 has been a strangely nostalgic time for many on the Web. Earlier this year, Oatmeal comic founder Matthew Inman set about raising money to create a museum to document the life of Nikola Tesla, the famous electricity engineer and inventor.

Within days, the funds came rolling in -- all to remember a man that many had never heard of, though had all used technologies that were powered by his insight and inventions. 

And, to add a little more nostalgia to the mix, animated GIFs have made a comeback, thanks to sites like Reddit and Imgur spurring the use. Like it was 1996, these short, looping, low quality images have no sound, and there's no need to wait for the content to buffer, and you don't need a browser plug-in to see it. 

21 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

The rise of the mini-tablets: Google, Amazon, Apple battle it out

Google and Amazon kicked off the movement into the 7-inch tablet space with their Nexus and Kindle Fire devices. Apple was a step behind. Apple was late to join the group as the iPad mini came along later than expected.

TheiPad mini rolled out in September, but sales have yet to match the domination of its older sibling, the iPad. Apple sold three million new iPads (with Retina display) and iPad mini tablets in the first sales weekend; the company did not break down the numbers further. However, Apple side-stepped the alleged 'death blow' to the wider mini-tablet industry by failing to compete on the sub-$200 price tag.

While many have flocked to the mini-tablet space, many are content with their full-size devices. Exactly how the mini-tablet -- devices that are between 5-inches and 8-inches in size -- has yet to be seen. We will likely see more use-case scenarios in 2013.

22 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

SOPA, PIPA defeated by netizen power; fight far from over

The Stop Online Piracy Act, the 'Internet killing' law that was making its way through Congress, had the power to block access to Web sites as powerful as Google, YouTube, Reddit, or any other site that cries wolf over copyright infringement claims. The Web took to a day of online protest action while hundreds of major Web sites -- including Google, Wikipedia, and Imgur -- blacked out their pages or went offline to 'simulate' what could happen if SOPA was passed by Congress. 

Similarly, the PROTECT-IP Act (or "PIPA") and CISPA were also shelved earlier this year after Web users from all over the world threatened days of action to protest the laws that would have had a potentially devastating effect on the way the Internet works and operates.

Later in the year, a United Nations group met to discuss regulating the Internet even further. Some countries even banded together in order to redefine the Internet as 'government-controlled." Eventually, the conference concluded without forming any definitive agreement on proposals, and Web users around the world breathed a collective sign of relief once more.

23 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Memes rocket, becomes cultural statement of the decade so far

During 2012, Reddit took back the crown as the world's favorite destination for popular Web content. Home of the memes, Digg crumbled and revamped itself as Digg 2.0, but will face an almost impossible task to get to the level Reddit currently stands at.

Of all things, while Reddit is a news-sharing site by principle, the network has been home to the creation of many memes -- cultural references modified for humorous purposes or to make a point -- such as Bear Grylls drinking his own urine, political and religions references, Neil deGrasse Tyson's "badass over there" adaptation, and -- of course -- the world-famous 'trollface' meme.

These 'memes' have sparked a whole new cultural medium over 2012 and their creators have rocketed to record creative levels. 

24 of 24 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

Yahoo's revolving door of chief executives. Will it stop spinning?

Yahoo has suffered a revolving door of chief executives this year. First off, savior Scott Thompson turned out to have embellished his resume with college education he did not receive, and was subsequently (and relatively swiftly) forced to resign. Then, following his departure, Ross Levinsohn took the company reins and steered it aimlessly until someone better could come along.

It was thought he would stick on as the permanent chief executive, but Yahoo instead managed to poach -- of all people -- former Google executive Marissa Mayer. As soon as she arrived at the door, she announced she was pregnant. Great news for her and all involved, but hardly the best time to announce it.

All in all, we have seen six chief executives in as many years. Will Marissa Mayer stick around? By the looks of it, yes, but it all falls down to her to bring the company back up from its knees into a less-than-fetal position that it's been in for the last half-decade.

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