SLIDESHOW

High-tech 2012: The year's biggest wins, comebacks and valiant efforts

We name the people, companies and products that took positive steps forward in 2012.

Always be winning

Back in January, we didn't expect 2012 to be the year we’d finally see real rivals to the iPhone and iPad. Or a female executive with the guts to run a big company, as well as a family. Or home automation becoming a mass-market attraction.

But we saw all of this and more in 2012. Here’s a look at some of the people, companies and products that either came out on top this year, or simply deserve style points for trying very, very hard.

Samsung Galaxy S III

Stop me if this sounds familiar: A slick, touchscreen phone earns raves before it's even released, generating buzz with consumers and industry pundits alike.

When it's finally released, the phone is already in short supply simply because so many people want to get their hands on it. Sales continue to be strong even months after its release.

Nope, I'm not talking about Apple's iPhone and its 2007 launch. I'm describing the Samsung Galaxy SIII, which launched earlier this year and quickly became the first real rival the iPhone has seen, in sales, in buzz, and acclaim.

Samsung may have lost to Apple in court, but the company was the winner where some say it matter more: with the general public. Oh, and those clever ads, the ones that poked fun at all of those iPhanatics out there? Those didn't hurt, either.

Yahoo's Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer graduated from Stanford with honors. She was employee number 20 at Google (and the company's first female engineer). She moved up the ranks at the search giant, overseeing many of the products that we all know and love. And she even got to sit down and chat with Lady Gaga.

Then, in July 2012, Mayer was named president and CEO of Yahoo, the once-mighty Internet company now grasping for relevance. Mayer also revealed that she was pregnant and gave birth to a boy in September.

Two weeks later, she was back at Yahoo, as she'd promised. Doubters gave her little chance of being able to run a giant company and a family at the same time. But she's proven them wrong—and in doing so, she's made it clear to women everywhere that it is possible.

Self-driving cars

Both California and Nevada have paved the way toward self-driving cars, allowing certain autonomous vehicles to hit the road—albeit with a human on board for an extra layer of safety.

At first glance, this news may not seem like a win for, well, almost anyone, except perhaps lazy drivers. But Google (one of the companies testing self-driving cars) believes that these vehicles will impact far more than simply technology enthusiasts. "The better transportation you have, the more choice in jobs. And that's social good. That's probably an economic good," Google CEO Larry Page said in an interview with Fortune.

And if you doubt the safety of self-driving cars, consider this: The only accident Google's reported since testing its vehicles occurred when a human was driving.

iPad competitors

Not so long ago, your choice in tablets sounded something like this: "Would you like your iPad with 32GB of storage or 64? Wi-Fi or 3G?"

Now, the tablet market is booming louder than a bass drum with a handful of devices that give prospective iPad purchasers reason for pause. Amazon's impressive Kindle Fire HD corrects many of the problems of the original Fire and Google's slick Nexus 7 proves that a pure Android tablet can indeed offer a refined experience for a mere $200.

iPad mini

The iPad mini is a win for multiple reasons. Chief among them is the price: Starting at $329, the mini is significantly more affordable than the bigger versions of Apple's tablet. But the mini also retains much of the functionality of the original iPad, and this is really where it shines. Instead of cutting back on features to hit the lower price point, Apple packed functionality and beauty to spare into this smaller iPad.

Windows 8

The jury is still out on Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, both when it comes to usability and sales.

While time will tell us more about how PC users feel about this new iteration of Windows, we can applaud Microsoft for at least one aspect: The fact that Windows 8 is not simply a retread of Windows 7.

Instead, it's a re-imagined operating system, one that proves that Microsoft isn't in denial. The way we use computers and interact with our devices is in flux, and the world's biggest software maker knows it has to innovate to keep up.

Microsoft Surface tablets

Speaking of Microsoft and innovation, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the software giant's foray into hardware. Tablets have never been bigger than they have this year, and, as we already mentioned, Microsoft understands that it needs to innovate in order to survive.

And Redmond did indeed innovate when designing the Surface tablet. From its handy kickstand, which helps the Surface function like a laptop, to its Touch Cover, which both protects the tablet and doubles as a keyboard, the Surface is an attractive, thoughtfully designed product.

Sure, Microsoft's Surface tablets have a steep hill to climb if they want to win over the hearts and minds of consumers and business users. But if you don't think Surface is a win, consider this: When was the last time you saw a cheering crowd greet a new Microsoft product?

Mars Curiosity Rover

Current generations may never have our "One small step for man..." moment, but they do have something that's arguably much cooler: the Mars Curiosity Rover.

While it may not have had crowds gathered around the TV, watching its landing, this car-sized robotic device has spent several months exploring the Red Planet, studying its climate and geology and gathering data on its environment.

The Curiosity Rover is capable of analyzing the soil and rocks it finds on Mars, and it was able to determine that the planet's soil contains water and chemicals that, while not a definite sign of life on Mars, do support the idea that there could be organic matter on the planet.

Oh, and when it's not busy trolling the Red Planet for signs of life, the Curiosity Rover updates its Twitter feed. (Okay, maybe it has a little human help with that.)

Kickstarter

Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced funding platform for startups, has been around since 2009. But we may remember 2012 as the year that Kickstarter really got kicking.

In February, Casey Hopkins's Elevation Dock, billed as "the best dock ever for the iPhone" surpassed its $75,000 funding goal on its way to becoming the first Kickstarter project to surpass $1,000,000.

It wasn't alone for long: hours later, Double Fine Adventure, an adventure game from Double Fine Productions, blew past its $400,000 goal, earning more than $3,000,000 in pledges.

And both of those projects pale in comparison to the Pebble E-Paper Watch for iPhone and Android. This project earned more than $10 million in pledges, from more than 68,000 backers, becoming the most funded project in Kickstarter's history.

Online activism

January 18, 2012 was the day the Internet—and millions and millions of users—made its voice heard. That was the day of the SOPA/PIPA Strike, in which thousands of Web sites and blogs went dark to voice their opposition to two controversial antipiracy bills.

As part of the strike, large sites like Google directed surfers to pages with information on the bills and the perceived problems with them, while others like Wikipedia shut down entirely. It's estimated that more than 162 million people saw the online protest message there.

On January 20, 2012, the bills were shelved indefinitely.

The results of the protest wasa "political coming of age" for the Internet, according to the New York Times, which noted that Internet entrepreneurs, technology experts, and others who "had largely steered clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington," used the power of the masses to make their voices heard.

Spotify

It's becoming harder and harder to log on to Facebook without seeing one of those Spotify updates. You know, the ones that tell you exactly which songs your friends and co-workers are listening to.

In addition to outing those friends who just couldn't stop listening to "Call Me Maybe," those notifications show just how popular this streaming music service has become.

Spotify was founded in 2006, and only launched in the U.S. in 2011. In its first year, the service racked up more than 3 million users in the United States—and nearly 20 percent of them are paying users. The president of the United States even used Spotify to share the official playlist of his re-election campaign this year.

I think that makes it official: Spotify has arrived.

Wearable fitness tech

Fitness stats are almost as common—if not more so—on Facebook than those Spotify updates these days. I can't log on without seeing which one of my friends just went for a jog, and if I want to delve deeper, I often can see where they ran, how far, and how fast.

Much of this data is made available through smartphone apps that track movement, as well as through wearable devices like Nike's FuelBand and FitBit's One, which track movement and other bodily functions like sleep. Even Weight Watchers is getting in on the wearable tech trend with its ActiveLink, a wearable movement monitor.

And wearable technology has gone beyond these types of fitness-focused devices. Macy's offers a fleece sweater that features an OLED display in its sleeve, designed to play "customized downloaded video content."

Mass Effect 3 multiplayer version

Late last year, BioWare announced that Mass Effect 3, the final installment in its popular role-playing shooter game, would get its own multiplayer version. That announcement was greeted with downright skepticism by many, including PCWorld's own gaming blogger, who said " If you asked me what the Mass Effect series needs most, multiplayer would probably rank somewhere near the bottom of my list."

But fast forward a year later, and Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer is being celebrated.

It's not just a feature tacked on to a game because, well, everyone else is offering multi-player. Instead, it's well thought, delivering an experience that both calls on and adds to the experience of the single-player game. And it's earned itself a loyal fan base because of that.

Google Fiber

In September, Google Fiber launched in Kansas City, Missouri, the first community to test the service.

Google Fiber offers three levels of broadband access to residents in the area, the lowest tier of which is free. The middle-tier plan, which offers speeds of 1 gigabit per second, is $70 per month, and the highest level adds in TV service (and a Nexus 7 tablet that serves as a remote control!) for $120 a month.

The price and those cool hardware amenities aren't the only reason Google Fiber has made headlines.

Netflix, an Internet company that knows something about throughput, says Google Fiber is the fastest Internet provider out there, delivering average speeds of 2.55 mbps. (Verizon FiOS was ranked second in Netflix's list, which test the average speeds for Netflix streams in the month of November), with an average speed of 2.19 mbps.

And don't be disheartened if you don't live in Kansas City: Google says it plans to bring the service to more cities, though it hasn't said where or when.

IPv6

Internet standards and protocols simply aren't all that exciting, or even that interesting, to most people. But they're necessary—especially in the case of IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6), the much-needed update to the aging IPv4.

IPv6 is the successor to IPv4, which, in Internet terms, is pretty ancient as it was created 40 years ago. IPv4 is the addressing scheme used to assign IP addresses to devices that connect to the Internet, and those addresses are quickly running out.

IPv4 has approximately 4.3 billion addresses, and with all of the computers, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, and what have you that can connect to the Internet these days, well, it's easy to see why those addresses are running out.

Because IPv6 will allow every device to have its own IP (not one assigned by a router): "All devices will be accessible on the public network, making it easier for people to manage things like home automation, file sharing, online gaming, peer-to-peer programs and other applications without complex settings on their router," says Tri Nguyen, a representative of ZyXEL.

Home automation

We've been talking—and writing—about home automation for years. But it's always seemed like something that's far off in the future. This year, however, home automation became easy and affordable.

Lowe's, the do-it-yourself super store, is offering kits for as low as $179 that allow consumers to monitor and control certain features of their homes via their computer, tablet, or smartphone.

AT&T, meanwhile, announced plans to launch AT&T Digital Life, a home security and automation service that will run on the company's wireless network. And you don't have to be a professional get your home automation system up and running: some products are simple enough to be installed by any do-it-yourselfer.

4G LTE connectivity

According to research firm Flurry Analytics, the "rate of iOS and Android device adoption has surpassed that of any consumer technology in history."

So, just how fast is that? It's 10 times faster than people adopted personal computers in the 1980s, and two times faster than the height of the Internet boom in the 1990s. And it's three times faster than social network adoption we've seen in recent years.

4G has been around for a few years now, with Verizon Wireless launching its LTE (Long Term Evolution) network in 2010, the same year that Sprint began offering service on its 4G WiMax network.

But in 2012, 4G hit its stride, with all of the major carriers either expanding LTE networks (AT&T, Verizon Wireless) or switching to the standard (Sprint).

This also was the year when we saw the launch of more devices that were able to take advantage of the high speeds offered over 4G LTE networks.

Even Apple got in on the 4G frenzy, (finally!) adding 4G support to the iPhone, in version 5, and the iPad. It's about time.

Netflix

You could be forgiven for assuming Netflix was among the dead, or—at the very least—that it had one foot solidly in the grave.

After all, the company had a miserable 2011, during which it attempted to spin off its DVD rental service into a separate business (remember "Qwikster"?) and then had to reverse course after too many customers complained? Netflix faced complaints from customers (unhappy with price hikes) and content providers (unhappy with lost revenue streams) alike, and seemed to be on the road to Internet obscurity.

And then came 2012. In November, Netflix managed to block a hostile takeover using its so-called "poison-pen" plan, which made the company prohibitively expensive to acquire.

In December, Netflix announced a deal with Disney, under which Netflix subscribers get exclusive access to stream files from Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, and Marvel starting in 2016. This deal shows that Netflix still has life in it.

Daredevil Felix Baumgartner

Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver and daredevil, made headlines around the world on October 14, when he set a world record for skydiving. Baumgartner did more than just skydive: he dove to earth from the very edge of outer space, traveling 24 miles to the ground.

He wore a special pressurized space suit that was designed to keep him safe from both the elements and the physical changes that could cause damage to his body during the free fall portion of his jump. Inside the space suit was a controller, about the size of a hockey puck, which was able to maintain the correct pressure at the current altitude.

The success of Baumgartner's jump should do more than simply inspire other daredevils to attempt similar feats. It also shows what technology—the space suit, the attached parachute, the capsule that carrier Baumgartner to the edge of space, and the cameras that relayed all of his movements to a captivated, online audience—can do.

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