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BW Businessworld

What A Year It Was

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So much happens in technology that you could look back at any given year in the past two decades and think: “Phew, what a year.” But far stronger words wouldn’t begin to describe 2012.

It’s been the year that terms like ‘mobility’ and ‘cloud’ have leapt right off the slides of presentations and into our everyday lives.  Like how I found a friend of mine using an app to keep track of his blood sugar. And another who wanted to know how to bank on her tablet to create and deliver presentations to clients. Such examples are no longer either surprising or countable.
 
Mobility was the pulse for almost everything that happened over 2012 in technology. We always knew it would happen, but at the same time, tech has become more unpredictable than ever. You can say there’ll be lots of tablets and smartphones in 2013; there’ll be more and better apps, and there will be interesting ‘converged’ hybrid products and many more connected things. But you can’t tell who’s going to make them happen. Because if there’s one thing we’ve seen this year, it’s that the awareness of mobility as a driving force is no guarantee of a company’s success. In fact, even for companies that have been born into mobility, the challenges have been extreme and surviving them hasn’t been a matter of one single thing that the company can do. So look at the struggles that have plagued our favourite tech titans:
 
Apple may have had a spectacular year but it’s shown that it’s not without competition; it’s not perfect after all; and it’s not assured a top-of-the-pack status unless it continues to innovate and surprise.  For Apple, the bar of expectations is set higher than for any other company.  The fabulous iPhone and iPad have been industry-defining and have the universe of an ecosystem tied into them, but the OS is showing its age as slicker and fresher interfaces come up to compete.

Notice how you now rarely hear the phrase ‘iPad killer’ or ‘iPhone killer’ as often. Many choices besides Apple’s expensive products, including the MacBooks, exist. And of course, many of those choices come from Apple’s big rival, Samsung, which in 2012 toppled Nokia as the No. 1 phone maker. In a world where 1.2 billion smartphones and tablets are expected to sell in 2013, according to analyst firm Gartner, Samsung will be showing no signs of slowing. Reports from a Korean publication state that Samsung will ship half a billion smart devices. Riding a wave of success despite many costly skirmishes in court, Samsung probably has fewer challenges than others, although staying on top is a feat that takes a different set of measures than those needed to get there. 
 
Google has its own way of doing things, not many of them making sense to an onlooker, but in Q3 of 2012, Android mopped up 75 per cent market share on smartphones, according to IDC. Google’s Nexus smartphones and tablets have been much sought after, though one doesn’t know how well these actually did. Google, like Amazon, kept its prices low (in the US) but like its own fragmented but interesting Android system, Google faces the need to create some cohesion to put all it does together. It’s even supposed to be working on a secret phone, codenamed the X Phone. 
 
Both Google and Microsoft have tried, at the risk of upsetting their OEM partners, to use Apple’s formula of total control over all aspects of their ecosystem — hardware, software, marketing and delivery. It hasn’t quite worked as advertised. The giants have not only played nasty with rivals but also with friends and there’s no telling how this will play out in 2013. Microsoft’s particular challenges are no secret. The Surface didn’t take the world by storm and Windows 8 cannot be said to have either flopped or succeeded in its very first year and version. It’s just a new beast and the shift for users isn’t easy, particularly when it comes to navigating the system itself.

Microsoft will have to play its cards right to sell its products at their high prices and get developers to build the apps ecosystem so critical to the company. Microsoft has to reorient the company, not just Windows, to meet its ambitious goals— including but not limited to being a service, being a seller of software, being a producer of hardware (perhaps) and becoming more of a search entity. 
 
For a bunch of one-time tech giants, 2012 has been nothing short of disastrous. What happened to HP? And why did Nokia lose momentum on its most-anticipated Lumia phone? And will Research in Motion’s BB10 bring it back into the race? Looking good as an OS and interface is no guarantee that there’s an entire compelling ecosystem and killer reason to choose the upcoming  BlackBerry smartphones over Android, Apple and Windows 8 devices. But you never know. It would be nice to say “what a year” post 2013 too. 
 
mala(at)pobox(dot)com ,@malabhargava on Twitter 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-01-2013)