2013: The year Android grew up
While there is no formal ceremony or rite of passage, it seems clear to me that 2013 was the year that Android finally came of age as a fully mature mobile OS to power the world. Rather than a fancy coronation ceremony, let's take a look back at the highlights of the past 12 months in Android.
The first commercially available Android phone, the HTC Dream or T-Mobile G1, launched over five years ago. At the time, it hardly seemed as though it carried the new mobile operating system that would soon take over the world. Yet, this past year seems to be the one that most firmly cemented Android in our world. Software updates were more solid and consistent, and big hardware launches from Samsung, HTC, Motorola and Google began to become almost as anticipated as Apple launch events.
Big flagships no shows at the big shows
The year in Android kicked off at CES in Las Vegas, where we saw all kinds of new hardware from the likes of Huawei and Lenovo, as well as Sony's waterproof Xperia Z and the bizarre Yotaphone with a secondary e-ink display. Nearly a year later, we've seen none of the above gain much traction, and there were also no major memorable moments from Mobile World Congress in February, except for the handing out of invitations to Samsung's big Galaxy S4 event in New York a month later.
And this is where the Android ball really got rolling in 2013.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Launch
While the media event itself was tone deaf at best and a little creepy at worst, the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 was highly hyped and amounted to an impressive display of the Korean monolith's complete domination of the Android world. For much of 2013 from this point on we'd hear talk about the war between Samsung and Apple rather than Android and Apple. Samsung would go on to sell many millions of units of the Galaxy S4 in all kinds of varieties, as well as related models like the Galaxy S4 Active, Mini, Zoom and the huge Galaxy Mega.
Even today, with the phone approaching nine months of age and talk of a Galaxy S5 in as little as two months, the S4 is still a strong seller that retailers in the US continue promoting to help drive holiday shopping. A handful of good and great Android phones would launch later in 2013 to much acclaim, but the Galaxy S4 by most measures certainly had the most successful mobile hardware launch of the year.
HTC One: A Sleeper Success
Then, right around May, something interesting began to happen. We began to hear about an underdog that was really impressing the Android faithful. While the new flagship HTC One had been unveiled before the Galaxy S4, Samsung had completely swallowed the lion's share of attention for much of the (northern) spring.
But once both phones made it into the wild, HTC's sleek metallic One with the front-facing speakers and quality camera was gaining traction as some people were beginning to discover that a number of the boat load of features packed into the Galaxy S4 were more gimmicky than functional.
So, for the first half of 2013, most eyes were on these two Android phones, although Samsung maintained an edge thanks to its marketing muscle, (and a delay in the HTC One coming to Verizon in the US surely helped as well). In lieu of releasing any new hardware at Google I/O, the company announced a pure Android, Nexus-like "Google Play Edition" of the Galaxy S4, followed a week later by a Google Edition HTC One.
New Summer Hardware From Google
While there was no earth-shattering Android news from Google I/O, we did get a nice new Nexus 7 and a surprise in the form of a piece of hardware that's not exactly an Android device, but more of an accessory, or perhaps a step towards unifying not just Android and Chrome, but doing it in the much-coveted living room: Chromecast.
Chromecast is an inexpensive HDMI dongle that enslaves whatever TV it is attached to. It can then be controlled via a mobile device or a Chrome browser extension. Any Chrome tab can be "thrown" to a big screen, and an increasing number of apps, such as YouTube, Hulu and Pandora, can also be used with a Chromecast. The limited number of apps is growing slowly, reportedly at the pace dictated by Google rather than developers, while the price of the already-cheap dongle is now down to under US$30.
Some novice users will find Chromecast a bit bewildering to set up and use, but if it catches on, it could go a long way towards making Android the dominant media consumption platform.
As for that new Nexus 7 that was also unveiled, it boasts mainly iterative hardware updates and a slightly higher price tag than the original, but the improved feel and functionality get kudos all around, making it the Android tab to beat once again.
The "X Phone" arrives at last
For the first half of 2013, all sorts of rumors flew about the magical unicorn of an Android phone that Motorola and Google were working on for their first full collaboration since Mountain View acquired the former. By early summer we knew to expect something a little more down to earth, but that the Moto X would be worth the wait, or so we were told.
What we got was basically a phone with mid-range specs at a mid-range price, but with a great feel, customizable design and a few great features like touchless control and active display. Oh yes, and the whole assembly operation is located in Texas, not Shenzhen.
The Moto X is really a triumph of smartphone design without being a revolution. But it's yet to catch fire where sales are concerned, with Apple and Samsung continuing to dominate consumers' attention.
Taking Note for a third time
In August, the Moto X was the focus, overshadowing even Motorola's latest batch of Droid phones and LG's respectable G2, but it was again Samsung that stole the show in September with the introduction of the Galaxy Note 3 and a companion smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear.
Opinions of both seemed almost universal: The latest Note is the best thing going for those looking for a big phablet, and the Galaxy Gear is just the opposite, according to most reviews. If Samsung rushed out its smartwatch to beat Apple to the punch, it succeeded, but ultimately failed.
Halloween treats or a trick?
It certainly seemed like a trick at first. That was the reaction of many when Google announced that the latest version of Android, version 4.4, would not be named Key Lime Pie, as most expected, but would instead be KitKat.
A small coup for marketing synergies, the new Android officially launched on the even more anticipated Nexus 5 from Google and LG at the end of October. KitKat is mostly an iterative update that inserts Google Now deeper into the operating system, adds limited caller ID using Google Places, and merges SMS and Google Hangouts, among other tweaks.
Android 4.4 is also leaner and meaner to perform better on a wider array of devices, including those in developing markets.
The Nexus 5 is also largely about making upgrades to the popular Nexus 4, with a gorgeous display, improved camera and other performance specs, which allow KitKat to really fly. Available unlocked at $349, it's tough to deny the overall value of the Nexus 5 as probably the best Android deal of the year.
If there is a phone that might be able to compete with the Nexus 5 in terms of being a bargain, it comes from Google's own Motorola in the form of the Moto G, which also comes unlocked for just $179, albeit without 4G. Just like streamlined KitKat, the Moto G hints at Google's hopes to get the world boarding the Android ship.
Also worth mentioning in this roundup is the fact that the painfully slow Google Glass rollout has continued. We learned that Glass does indeed run a variation of Android, and the original hardware received an upgrade that includes an earbud. Google also opened up many more slots in its Glass Explorer program, so expect to see the augmented reality specs more often in the wild, and hopefully at the top of next year's list of the biggest new Android products from 2014.