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Apple: Top 5 events from 2012

From the iPad Mini to big labor issues in China, 2012 was not a slow one for Apple. CNET spotlights five of the biggest happenings for the year.

James Martin/CNET

Apple spent 2012 much like it did the year before: relentlessly pushing out new products. But that's nothing new.

Instead, tech historians will likely look back at 2012 as one of the company's most transformative years. A time where we saw some of the first pieces of a post-Jobs Apple begin to take shape.

Five key news events marked Apple's 2012, from products to company controversy.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories chronicling the top five events during 2012 for a handful of major technology companies, and technology categories. In the coming days CNET will also recap major events for Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and others.

Sketches by Vicki Behringer

1. Apple v. Samsung
What's more interesting than watching rivals duke it out? When they're also multibillion-dollar-a-year business partners with one another, as was the case between Apple and Samsung.

This legal war began in 2011 when Apple sued the South Korean technology giant. But 2012 was the banner year for the fight as those lawsuits went to trial in a Northern California court.

The three-week-long trial provided hours upon hours of testimony from witnesses on both sides. But what really captured the public's interest were some of the secrets unearthed along the way. That included numerous photos of Apple's iPhone and iPad prototypes as well as internal e-mails, and presentations from both sides. Samsung ended up losing considerably, as the jury sided with Apple in nearly all of its claims.

The two companies went back to court earlier this month to sort out a number of remaining details, including whether Apple can get a permanent sales ban on at least eight of Samsung's devices in the U.S., and whether Samsung can persuade a judge to grant a retrial. There's also a separate trial between the two set for 2014 concerning some of the newer devices.

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn's Zhengzhou factory line.
Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn's Zhengzhou factory line. Bowen Liu/Apple Inc. / Bloomberg

2. Apple in China
Apple's annual supplier responsibility report made waves immediately upon its release in January. For one, the company for the first time released a full list of its suppliers. Apple also joined the Fair Labor Association, who would go on to begin auditing Apple's suppliers and production facilities.

Any positive findings were quickly overshadowed by a series of reports from The New York Times, lambasting the manufacturing side of Apple's business, something near and dear to CEO Tim Cook. While Apple's chief operating officer, Cook is credited with utilizing overseas manufacturers to very quickly produce massive numbers of computers, iPods, and now iPhones and iPads.

The reports, which weren't the first to be critical on the matter, homed in on Apple for poor labor and safety issues in its supplier facilities, as well as for using business practices that prohibited those manufacturers from making improvements. In its own annual supplier report, Apple said it found issues with working hours and compliance with environmental standards.

Cook responded to the situation in a memo to employees (which was leaked), saying the company cared about "every worker in our worldwide supply chain," and that "any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us." Cook then made a public appearance at a technology conference put on by Goldman Sachs to reiterate those claims. He followed that with a trip to China, where he was photographed next to workers on the shop floor of Foxconn, donning some of the same protective clothing.

Actor Mike Daisey. Courtesy Ursa Waz

Alongside the issue was newfound criticism of one of Apple's staunchest labor critics, Mike Daisey, who penned his one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" after traveling to Shenzhen, China. The monologue, which debuted in 2010, highlighted labor issues in Chinese factories, from underage workers to people being poisoned by industrial chemicals while producing Apple's gadgets.

In March, popular radio program This American Life issued a retraction of a show it ran featuring a large portion of Daisey's monologue, followed by an indepth report by host Ira glass and American Public Media's China correspondent, Rob Schmitz, refuting a number of the claims made by Daisey.

Concerns about overseas manufacturing, and Apple's involvement persist. A reportfrom the Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior said in September that those in a key Foxconn factory in China that produces iPhones still faced "deplorably harsh working conditions," among other violations of Chinese law. Foxconn said the report did not represent the 192,000 employees who worked at the facility. Just three days later, 2,000 workers at a Foxconn factory in a different part of the country erupted in a riot, reportedly over a spat between a worker and a guard. The plant, which employed 79,000 employees at the time, was closed and reopened a day later.

More recently, an investigative report from French TV program Envoyé Spécial claimed there were still some major worker rights issues, including workers living in unfinished buildings without water or electricity. The report made use of hidden-camera footage captured at Foxconn's campus in Zhengzhou.

Scott Forstall, senior VP of iOS Software set to depart Apple next year.
Scott Forstall, senior VP of iOS Software set to depart Apple next year. James Martin/CNET

3. Executive shakeup
While the East Coast of the U.S. was reeling from Hurricane Sandy, Apple quietly announced the departure of two of its top executives, including one who was thought to be a future candidate for CEO.

Apple said iOS chief Scott Forstall would be leaving the company next year, while retail chief John Browett was out immediately. Picking up the remaining responsibilities were top execs Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, and Craig Federighi, who Apple said would stay on with expanded roles. Hardware chief Bob Mansfield also took on a new position heading up a division that focuses on semiconductors and cellular technologies.

The change was the first major shift in top management since the death of Steve Jobs. While Tim Cook promoted several key players to greater positions within the company's executive team shortly after he became CEO, Apple positioned the newer change as something that would improve collaboration.

In the aftermath, what caught everyone's attention were numerous reports painting Forstall as a divisive player among Apple's top brass. A report from The Wall Street Journal, for instance, claimed that Forstall refused to sign Apple's apology over the quality of its new maps software, instead leaving it up to Cook -- something that ultimately led to his firing. Meanwhile, Browett's departure (which was also said to be a firing), left the company searching for a new boss of its retail operations, a role that is expected to be filled sometime next year.

4. Stock highs, lows, and a dividend
Apple's stock soared to new heights in 2012, reaching an all-time high of $702 on September 21, the same day the iPhone 5 went on sale. But from there, it became a different story. The focus turned from Apple's quick and steady growth to an equally speedy decline, as shares fell nearly 20 percent in the course of a month. Some analyst firms like Merrill Lynch, Jefferies, Evercore, and Nomura Equity Research reduced their price targets, but maintained recommendations to buy.

In March, Apple announced plans to pay a dividend to investors as well as buy back $10 billion worth of its stock, answering what had become a frequent question at investor meetings and quarterly conference calls with analysts about how and when Apple would use some of its massive cash hoard.

All told, the plan involves spending $45 billion over its first three years. But the real takeaway is that it set up Apple to become more attractive to a new group of investors who eye dividends for long-term security over big jumps in the sale price.

Apple executive Phil Schiller showing off the iPad Mini for the first time at the company's event in October.
Apple executive Phil Schiller showing off the iPad Mini for the first time at the company's event in October. James Martin/CNET

5. iPad Mini
To be sure, the iPad Mini was the product everyone was expecting. Rumors in the months and weeks ahead of its release nailed down every specific detail, right down to the buttons, screen resolution, and price.

So why include it on this list you might be asking? The Mini is Apple's first expansion of the iPad line with a completely new model, and one that promises to get more people in the door with a lower price tag. Some even believe that the Mini will quickly become Apple's main iPad, with more consumers choosing to buy it over the larger, more expensive version.

Estimates from some analysts suggest Apple will sell at least 30 million of the smaller tablets next year, well over the number of iPads Apple sold during the original product's first year. That makes it a product introduction that's hard to ignore.