The year looked to define the world's tech giants, as Apple, Google and Microsoft each faced their own particular set of hurdles. Apple was reeling from the death of its founder Steve Jobs in late 2011, Google was trying convince the FCC that its actions weren't anti-competitive, and Microsoft was ready to embark on its riskiest endeavor yet: a new touch-based operating system, and its first-ever piece of commercial hardware, the Surface.
Each of these companies enjoyed varying degrees of success this year, but in many ways, they really came up short in 2012 when it counted. The one common thread among these big disappointments -- namely, the five listed below -- was that all of these devices and services had great expectations at one point, but could not meet the hype -- regardless who produced it (mostly us). Here they are, ordered from least to most disappointing:
5. The Nexus Q - It seems everyone and their mother can build a streaming media player -- Apple, Roku, Boxee, you name it -- so why can't Google? The company that's everywhere at once promised a beautiful new gadget in June, but has been backpedaling ever since.
The Nexus Q was an unexpected announcement this summer, and it certainly turned plenty of heads when unveiled at Google's I/O Conference. Many may have thought the black orb with the glowing LED ring looked more like a spaceship, but Google was instead promising "the first-ever social streaming device" -- an Android-based hub for streaming content from the Google Play store.
Unfortunately, while the design was attractive -- and the fact this was the first hardware product actually built by Google -- the features and the price tag were a major turnoff.
At $300, the Nexus Q sold at nearly three times the price of its competitors, including the Apple TV and Roku, but making matters worse, the device was extremely limited. Applications outside of Google's ecosystem (i.e. Google Play and YouTube) were totally off-limits; this included streaming media player favorites like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and Spotify.
Google delayed the wide release of the Nexus Q in July after many early negative reviews blasted the device for its deficiencies, but still shipped out its pre-order stock for free to satisfy those customers who wanted to adopt early.
Since July, however, the Nexus Q has become a ghost of sorts. Google even removed the Q from the Nexus landing page entirely, and even though it still has a listing in the Google Play store, a glum caption simply reads, "This device is not for sale at this time."
Google may resuscitate the Nexus Q in 2013, but in 2012, it was a total bummer.
4. Apple Maps - iOS 6 may boast the quickest adoption rate of any new software product from Apple, but that's no thanks to the company's controversial self-branded Maps service, which made its half-baked debut in iOS 6 on Sept. 19.
Apple and Google have had a rocky relationship ever since Android showed up and made things awkward. Considering the growth of the little green robot in recent years, Apple has been trying its darndest to stifle Google's presence from the iOS home page. (Efforts are unsuccessful thus far: Google has the two top-selling and top-rated apps in the iOS App Store, including YouTube and Google Maps -- more on that in a minute.)
In 2012, Apple decided that iOS was growing too big for Google, and it wanted to build its own version of the most-used app on iOS: Google Maps.
In turn, Google Maps got the boot, and Apple introduced its own Maps solution to the world during WWDC 2012 in June, as a part of iOS 6.
Apple's Maps application was beautiful to look at -- especially when you check out the eye-popping 3D maps in Flyover mode -- but was absolutely filled with blunders left and right. Maps and listings were distorted, and simply incorrect at times. Many local businesses were absent from the page. The directions feature didn't support local or public transit, or multiple stops. Google Maps it was not.
Apple tried everything in its power to right the ship -- CEO Tim Cook wrote an open apology letter to fans, fired a few of the project's leaders and promised a priority for making improvements -- but only the reappearance of Google Maps in the App Store was enough to quiet the angry masses.
All seems right with the world now that Google Maps is restored to iOS, but many are still stinging from Apple's attempt to hijack the navigation experience without having a proper and ready solution. iOS 6 may have been a highlight for Apple in 2012, but the company's Maps app was certainly a major low point.
3. The NFC iPhone - The iPhone 5 is a fantastic device -- global sales say most people agree with this sentiment -- but many were hoping for much more.
The iPhone 5 has a form factor different from any iPhone before it -- it's thinner and longer than any previous iPhone -- but besides faster processors for graphics and computing, the iPhone doesn't have any real proprietary software to make it different from last year's model, the iPhone 4S. It runs iOS 6, but after Sept. 19, so did every other Apple device.
Originally, many believed the iPhone 5 would distinguish itself by including an Near Field Communication chip for the very first time.
As someone who has repeatedly forgotten my credit card in many a restaurant, I was very excited to learn that Apple was planning on putting some of its NFC patents to good use, which would let iPhone users purchase items via their credit card, manage their personal finances, share files, control home electronics and even learn more information about products as they shop. It seemed Apple may have redefined the smartphone again with a new form factor and a new identity as a secure digital wallet.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 5 would not be the phone to kill off the wallet. It would also not be the first iPhone to deliver many other promising software features, from the smart "Photographer's Timer" to the advanced haptics system that essentially produces 3D buttons or objects to interact with when needed. They all would have been great features, but NFC was one of the most promising. Its absence doesn't mar the iPhone 5 experience, but the presence of a defining feature like NFC was certainly missed.
2. Microsoft Surface - Hardware was never in Microsoft's blood, but the company seemed to change its mind -- at least to celebrate the debut of the new Windows 8 platform -- with the Microsoft Surface, the company's first self-branded tablet.
Windows 8 was a huge risk, and so was building a hybrid tablet-laptop specifically for the occasion. Unfortunately, the Surface currently available is simply not worthy of bearing the Microsoft name. Let me explain why.
The tablet itself is a nice piece of hardware -- the external molded VaporMg casing is very smooth, and the built-in kickstand is also beautifully optimized for typing and hands-free viewing.
Ironically, what Microsoft really screwed up with the Surface was actually what Microsoft should have nailed, and that's the software -- at least its integration with the hardware. The touch screen may be pretty to look at, but its many features are rather unintuitive to find, and all of them work rather slowly. It's a good thing the loading screens on the Surface are beautiful, because you'll be seeing a lot of them.
Being the flagship Windows 8 device that it is, the Microsoft Surface is extremely disappointing and highly imbalanced. Typing is nice, but touch-based applications are exceedingly frustrating because of the imprecise touchscreen, and many applications, including Microsoft's own (*cough*Excel*cough*) are simply not ready for prime time.
Even some of the best alleged features, like being able to simultaneously record video and type, just don't work as you'd like. In that example, you can't choose how much of the screen is taken up by video or your Word document; the divider simply snaps to grids, and to make things worse, their placement is hardly ideal.
In short, the concept of the Surface is sound and the hardware works, but the hardware-software interplay just misses terribly.
As a tablet, it's nowhere in the league with iPad, and as a laptop, it's simply not sleek, fast, or intuitive enough. And starting at $499 -- by the way, that's without the all-important keyboard cover, which you'll need to buy separately for an extra $119 (I almost choked when Microsoft announced that) -- it's certainly no bargain on either the tablet or laptop front.
If Microsoft's planning another Surface, it needs to release it sooner rather than later. Plain and simple, the first-generation Microsoft Surface may be the Bum of 2012.
1. The iPad Mini - My review of the iPad Mini says it all, but in essence, this product is the original iPad all over again. It's exciting because it's new, but its deficiencies are incredibly clear; also like the iPad 1, the first-gen iPad Mini will be obsolete in less than a year with a significantly better model -- the model it should have been -- simply because the iPad Mini is so lacking.
The iPad Mini is built beautifully, and the 7.9-inch iPad feels like an ideal blend of engineering strategies for the iPhone 5 and third- and fourth-generation iPads, with its anodized aluminum surface and curved back. The iOS experience is also largely positive; unfortunately, Apple came up short where it really counts, and that's the display.
Displays are always important on any device, but in a tablet, the display is everything. It literally is the entire experience -- the medium for presentation and user interaction all in one. The quality of the display completely colors the entire experience of owning a tablet; if you got a bum display, you got a bum tablet.
As I said in my review, "the iPad Mini's display is a bum, and starting at $329, it almost feels like an insult."
Here's the thing: The iPad Mini would have been incredible in 2011, way before anyone ever experienced a Retina Display on tablet. But unfortunately, Apple sabotaged itself in March with its third-generation iPad with Retina Display. Once you've seen a Retina Display on an iPad, there is simply no going back. Ever.
The iPad Mini is non-Retina, and it has the exact display resolution as the iPad 2 (1024 x 768), despite its smaller screen size. Removing the power-sucking screen absolutely benefits battery life, but for a tablet, to me, the display is far more important. I don't have to look at the battery life all day. The battery life isn't my portal for movies, books, Web articles, or email. The screen is. And frankly, the screen on the iPad Mini sucks.
The iPad Mini was such a monumental disappointment because it felt like just a strategic move on Apple's part; it didn't truly really feel like the company's best foot forward. Apple's strategy? "An iPad Mini will have hype all by itself, it doesn't need to be perfect. Not this time around."
With a three-generations-old A5 chip and no Retina Display, the first-gen iPad Mini purposefully gave itself plenty of room for Apple to improve. But this tiny tablet, despite its pretty shell, is essentially filled with the computing equivalent of Thanksgiving leftovers.
The iPad Mini will no doubt improve in the future. In 2013, expect the iPad Mini sequel to feature faster processors -- likely this year's A6 or A6X chips -- and a Retina Display. This is what the iPad Mini should've always been; it's a shame that Apple was okay with settling for anything less for the sake of strategy, instead of making a great product.
I'm not sure if the first-generation iPad Mini would have been released under Jobs, because the device, as it was built, feels more like an "operational" decision. The best possible product, it is not.