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Mobile devices: Five predictions for 2012

It's hard to imagine topping the craziness of this past year, but CNET's Roger Cheng thinks that's exactly what will happen, with one mobile platform plunging off a cliff and another one finally breaking through.

LTE started off with a bang early this year with a major Verizon event. AT&T will pick up the torch and run with it in 2012.
Verizon Wireless

It's been a whirlwind year for the mobile-devices business, and next year promises to be even more exciting.

Just as 2011 saw the rise in dominance of Android, Apple basically opening fire on every Android device through lawsuits, and a flood of tablets and 4G devices, 2012 should see similar shake-ups in the industry. Below are five predictions for what will happen next year. Some are based on recent conversations with industry sources, others rely on where the market trends are heading, while a few are speculation and wishful thinking.

One thing's for sure: the industry will continue to be as chaotic as it has ever been--and maybe more so--making it a lot of fun to cover. So without further ado, here are my bold predictions for next year.

Research in Motion gets taken out
So, if we're dealing with predictions for next year, why not start with the boldest? True, given RIM's recent struggles, it may not be so bold anymore. But with last week's admission that a BlackBerry 10 phone won't be out until late next year, it looks like things are getting even worse.

With such a massive delay, developers will continue to avoid BlackBerry, instead focusing their resources on platforms that are actually out in the market today. RIM will continue to pour money into the PlayBook tablet as a bridge to BlackBerry 10, but the base of users won't grow enough to warrant any developer attention.

Wall Street is already circling RIM's management, which has overseen a company that has lost more than three-quarters of its market value in the last year, and the continued hiccups could be the excuse to push for a shake-up. The problem is that co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis are also the two largest shareholders, making them difficult to unseat. Last week, both opted to cut their cash compensation to $1 in a token effort to appease investors.

Ultimately, I say, RIM gets acquired, especially given how ridiculously cheap the company has gotten. That's probably what most investors are hoping for right now, even if BlackBerry fans continue to pray for a comeback.

LTE goes mainstream
Pretty soon, your mom is going to be asking for an LTE phone. She may not know what it is, or even know what it's for, but she'll be demanding it. That's a testament to how effective Verizon Wireless' marketing juggernaut has been.

Next year, AT&T will be talking about 4G LTE in a big way. The company is already dabbling with some 4G LTE commercials, but it will soon be blasting the airwaves, once coverage expands to more cities.

So what does this mean? I'm looking for LTE smartphones I can use for a whole day without feeling the panic-induced need to hunt for an outlet. The introduction of integrated chips--ones that combine multiple cellular radios using a more efficient design--should lead to better devices.

Verizon Wireless has already said that a vast majority of its smartphones next year will be LTE. It's a safe bet that LTE will figure prominently in AT&T's product portfolio as well. Sprint Nextel will also switch on its own LTE network next year and plans to launch 15 such devices in the second half.

And look for LTE to find its way into other devices, including medical equipment, cars, and video surveillance systems. The carriers just spent billions of dollars on these networks; they're going to put them to work.

Windows Phone breaks through
This is more along the lines of wishful thinking, as it's still unclear how Windows Phone will fare in the market. Microsoft has had a rocky first year and hopes to do better with Year 2. The Consumer Electronics Show could prove to be a big one for Windows Phone, with major partner Nokia itching to make its presence felt.

While T-Mobile's decision to sell the Lumia 710 was a bit disappointing, many expect AT&T to show up with an LTE-enabled version of the higher profile Lumia 800. Microsoft has said it expects stronger carrier support and a steadier stream of marketing over the next few months, as opposed to a single pop from last year. The company will need to ramp up Tango, its next software update, as well as LTE support, as quickly as possible.

With many of the other vendors occupied with Android, Nokia may take on the responsibilities of creating the first flagship Windows Phone device. And no, I don't mean the Lumia 800. Nokia has already hinted at a wide range of products, including an even higher end model. That will be the device to finally get consumers to turn their heads. Those that do will be pleasantly surprised.

Google launches legal counterstrike
Once Google completes its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, it'll have a stockpile of patents with which to go after Apple.

Google has so far been reluctant to directly take on Apple, preferring to voice support to its Android partners. That changed a bit when it supplied HTC with patents with which to defend itself. You can expect Google to be more proactive, particularly as the industry drowns in growing litigation. Either Google will go after Apple directly, or more likely, provide ammunition in the form of patents to its partners.

Unfortunately, I don't see any real resolutions, particularly with all the various players continuing to exercise their right to appeal each decision. Apple yesterday won a victory against HTC in the International Trade Commission, but the limited nature of the ruling didn't resolve much.

Instead, you'll see more attempts from the likes of Apple and Samsung Electronics to ban each other's products. As long as the companies don't have to negotiate, they won't.

Non-iPad tablets see more love
Let's be honest, with a few exceptions, Android tablets have been a disaster this year. The first device running on Honeycomb, a version of Android specifically designed for tablets, was the Motorola Moblity Xoom for Verizon Wireless. It was so disappointing, Motorola and Verizon renamed the follow-up tablets Xyboard--so you know it had to have sold pretty badly.

Not all was negative: the $200 Kindle Fire finally sparked genuine excitement over a tablet that wasn't made by Apple. That momentum should continue into next year, as other companies step up their games--and possibly lower their price tags--in their fight to produce the second-most successful tablet, behind the iPad.

I'm expecting Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Android, and the first to integrate both the tablet and smartphone experiences, to smooth out the hiccups and give consumers a reason to look at a non-Apple product.

I also anticipate at least one more TouchPad-like fire sale, when one of the new tablets inevitably stumbles out of the gate.