The top 10 mobile stories of 2012 you don't want to forget

This year, Android and Samsung reigned supreme, Lumia 900 sales didn't live up to the phone's splashy launch, and RIM delayed BlackBerry 10 -- again.

The past 12 months have seen a lot of action in the mobile market.

Google Android and its biggest device partner, Samsung, had a very good year as they surged ahead of Apple and the iPhone. Meanwhile other players in the mobile market, such as Microsoft, Nokia, and Research In Motion, still struggled to make a dent against Google and Apple. And the impending "spectrum crunch" has driven a bevvy of wheeling and dealing on the carrier side.

What will 2013 bring? I suspect Android will continue to get stronger. But we'll finally see whether a true "third challenger" emerges. When it comes to the carriers, there will be more consolidation as operators do all they can to gobble up as much spectrum as they can to feed the insatiable appetites of mobile subscribers.

1. Android established its complete dominance over iOS

If there was any doubt about which smartphone operating system is king throughout the world, the issue was settled in 2012. As of the third quarter of 2012, Android smartphones accounted for 75 percent of the worldwide smartphone market , according to IDC. Despite the iPhone's popularity in the U.S. and abroad, iOS accounted for only 14.9 percent of all sales.

"Android has been one of the primary growth engines of the smartphone market since it was launched in 2008," IDC Mobile Phones Research Manager Ramon Llamas said in a statement. "In every year since then, Android has effectively outpaced the market and taken market share from the competition."

Android's biggest market is China , where roughly 786 million Android smartphones are expected to be sold by the end of the year, according to market research firm Informa. This is a 45 percent jump in Android sales compared with 2011.

There's no question Android wins in the worldwide market. But the race is a bit tighter in the U.S. And it could get even closer if Apple reports big numbers in the fourth quarter for the iPhone 5. Apple's been growing its share in the U.S. In the third quarter of 2012, iOS accounted for 38 percent of smartphone sales, compared with 21.5 percent of sales last year. Meanwhile, Android lost share, getting 57.5 percent of the market in the third quarter of 2012 compared to 66 percent the year before, according to a report from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

2. Sprint gets taken out by Softbank and brings Clearwire back into the fold

Sprint's turnaround after its failed merger with Nextel has been a long one. But the company got a much needed boost in October when Japanese firm Softbank announced plans to invest $20.1 billion in the company .

Softbank wants to take control of the company and give the beleaguered carrier the financial wherewithal to make a real play against bigger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The all-cash deal is expected to close in the middle of 2013 and will give the Japanese technology and investment firm a 70 percent stake in Sprint. Softbank execs say they plan to invest at least $8 billion in Sprint, and they are determined to improve the carrier's network and make Sprint's 4G LTE network a force to be reckoned with in the U.S.

Sprint took another step this month to help secure its future with a deal to buy out remaining shares from Clearwire . The deal, which is valued at $2.2 billion, will give Sprint full control over Clearwire's spectrum as well as the company's 4G WiMax network and its upcoming LTE network.

3. T-Mobile, MetroPCS merge

T-Mobile USA also came off the sidelines in 2012. The company's parent Deutsche Telekom finally looks ready to invest in the carrier. Armed with new spectrum it received as part of the merger breakup with AT&T, the company has a new lease on life.
Composite by Joe Aimonetti/CNET

In the early summer it struck a deal with Verizon Wireless to get even more wireless spectrum, which it intends to use to build its 4G LTE network.

But the most significant step T-Mobile took to make itself a stronger competitor was in October, when the company announced plans to to buy prepaid regional carrier MetroPCS .

While T-Mobile will still be the fourth largest wireless operator in the U.S. after the merger is finalized, the newly merged company will significantly expand its customer base and give it an even stronger position in the growing prepaid market. Combined, the new T-Mobile will boast a customer base of about 43 million, compared to Sprint's 56 million customers.

The deal is expected to close in the middle of 2013.

4. Research In Motion delays BlackBerry 10...again

Research In Motion was supposed to unveil its first BlackBerry 10 devices in 2011.
BlackBerry Balance feature on BlackBerry OS 10
BlackBerry Balance feature on BlackBerry OS 10. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

But about this time last year, then co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis said the new devices would be ready by mid-2012. Well, the summer of 2012 came and went with no BlackBerry 10 devices to be found. Now as 2013 approaches, the company, which has since had an executive shake-up, says that 2013 is the year of BlackBerry 10.

Meanwhile, sales of BlackBerry devices continues to fall and RIM's market share plummets. Loyal fans are crossing their fingers for a turnaround. RIM has already sent out media invitations for its BlackBerry 10 launch on January 30 . We'll see if the adage "better late than never" applies to this situation.

5. Nokia holds splashy launch of Lumia 900 -- little happens

Following the launch of its first Windows-based Lumia smartphones in Europe in late 2011, Nokia introduced the Lumia 900, its first Windows Phone smartphone in the U.S. at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas amid huge fanfare.

When the device finally hit store shelves in early April, AT&T, the exclusive carrier for the device, said that the launch of the Lumia would be a "notch above anything we've ever done," including the iPhone's launch .

Indeed big marketing dollars were spent on the splashy debut. Unfortunately, sales of the device were modest. And by July, the price of the Lumia 900 had been slashed in half . With a new price tag of $49.99, AT&T and Nokia hoped to lure more customers to the device . But an update to the phone's operating system and the hope of the new Windows Phone 8 software launching a few months later, hurt sales of the Lumia 900.

6. Windows Phone 8 launches, along with it comes new hope

Microsoft wants to be successful in mobile. In fact, it needs to be successful in mobile. But for the past couple of years, the company has come up short. The company hopes its new Windows Phone 8 platform will change all that .
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer shows off the latest Windows Phone 8 smartphones. James Martin/CNET

In early November, Microsoft launched the newest version of the Windows Phone operating system: Windows Phone 8. The new software came just days after Microsoft launched its Windows 8 software for desktops, laptops, and tablets. The new mobile software is expected to one day tie together with the Windows 8 software.

With strong products from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung, Microsoft may finally have a chance at becoming a third strong player in the smartphone market.

But the company still faces stiff competition from Google Android and Apple iOS devices. Meanwhile, Research In Motion's BlackBerry is expected to finally launch new devices using its BlackBerry 10 OS in 2013.

7. Congress gives FCC greenlight to hold spectrum auctions

I know there wasn't a lot that Congress agreed on in 2012. But one thing they managed to get done was the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 passed in February. As part of this bill, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate agreed on legislation that authorized the Federal Communications Commission to auction off wireless spectrum . Revenue from the incentive auctions will be used to help pay for the tax cuts and unemployment benefits that were the main part of the bill.

These so-called incentive auctions will bring new wireless spectrum to the market, giving mobile carriers more capacity to handle growing demand for wireless data services. The spectrum will come from TV broadcasters, which will be able to give up wireless spectrum they aren't currently using in exchange for a cut of the proceeds from the auctions. The government hopes to free up at least 120MHz of spectrum for the auction.

The FCC began working on the details of the auction right away, and it presented its plan for the auctions in September . The agency is now receiving public comment on the proposal and hopes to hold the auction in June 2014.

8. Regulators OK Verizon's $3.9 billion bid to buy cable spectrum.

After the AT&T merger with T-Mobile fell apart at the end of last year, Verizon threw the industry a curveball with it's announcement that it planned to buy an additional 20MHz of wireless spectrum from a consortium of cable companies.
Verizon

In August, Verizon Wireless won approval from the FCC and the Department of Justice to buy a significant swath of spectrum from cable operators Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Communications. Verizon voluntarily agreed to divest some of its wireless spectrum holdings. The carrier struck a deal with T-Mobile USA. The move proved to be a smart negotiating tactic that helped satisfy many of the FCC's concerns.

Verizon plans to use the additional spectrum to continue building out its 4G LTE network . The additional 20MHz of spectrum is expected to help the carrier beef up capacity in densely populated urban areas.

9. Samsung displaces Nokia as top cell phone maker in the world

Already the leader in the smartphone market, Samsung extended its lead and is now officially the largest supplier of cell phones throughout the world .
Samsung Galaxy Axiom
Josh Miller/CNET

To get the top spot, Samsung unseated Nokia, which held the title for some 14 years. Samsung has risen through the ranks quickly, leading the market with its Google Android S series of devices. In addition to the Galaxy S III smartphone launched in 2012, Samsung also introduced two new "phablets," the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Note 2.

10. LTE rollouts in full force

Remember when 3G networks were a big deal? Well, 3G has now become passe as carriers have begun deploying 4G technology. These new networks, which use a technology called LTE, or Long Term Evolution, bring true broadband-like speeds to wireless devices, paving the way for wireless subscribers to quickly update social networks, download apps, and stream all kinds of video and audio.
AT&T

Verizon, which was the first major carrier to launch its LTE network in 2010, still dominates the market in 2012 with the largest footprint. But 2012 was the year that other carriers made their mark in 4G as well.

AT&T has doubled its reach. And Sprint, which first bet on 4G WiMax for its next-generation wireless technology, also started deploying its 4G LTE network. Even smaller, regional players got into the act in 2012 as U.S. Cellular deployed its first 4G LTE radios in March. Outside the United States, LTE expanded beyond its original home in Sweden and Norway with more carrier launches in Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Fueling the growth of new LTE network deployments were a bevy of new LTE-enabled handsets, including Apple's first LTE devices. In the spring, Apple introduced the first 4G LTE Apple iPad. And in the fall it released the 4G-ready iPhone 5, iPad Mini, and fourth-generation iPad.

 

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