The first six months were a doozy — full of new hotness, DOA products, and a brush with celebrity
Professionally speaking, you've got to love the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays. There's almost zero actual news, basically making it a week off from the usual grind and a chance to relax a tad before the craziness that is CES. It's also the annual time to look back on the year that was. Cliche? Sure. But it's also a practical way to fill virtual space.
And looking back is important, I think, especially in a business that moves as quickly as this one does. It's so easy to move on to the next hotness and ignore a good thing that's still available. It's easy to miss the forest for the trees, if not a single branch. Perspective can be difficult to maintain.
Matthew Panzarino said it well last week on Twitter: "something I think about a lot: the tech ‘fog of war’ which causes bloggers, writers to think in 90 day chunks." That's not unique to writing about tech, but the point stands. The carriers and manufacturers are playing chess, while everyone else is busy playing checkers.
Something to consider when you see folks arguing that a great phone can't possibly be using a processor that's "200 less" or some such nonsense.
And with that, a look back on 2013, as I saw it ...
(Update: And here's Part 2, with the second six months of the year!)
January 2013: NVIDIA and Pebble rule what's left of mobile at CES ...
Next week will my fifth Consumer Electronics Show, and I can't remember any as busy as my first in 2010. That's probably because I had no idea what I was getting into, but there's no denying that there just aren't as many major product announcements for mobile at the event.
Shield is still a pretty cool product — a powerful, handheld, all-in-one gaming platform. And the price drops it saw after its release didn't hurt. But NVIDIA blew the marketing, I believe, relying too much on blogs and not enough (or any?) on traditional advertising. And for as cool as Shield may be, the 5-inch display was just too small for the sort of graphics-rich games it's intended for.
CES also was the coming-out party for Pebble. It took the smartwatch a few more months to finally get onto a significant number of wrists, but for sure you can count it as the beginning of the wearable era.
Feb. 19, 2013: The HTC One is announced
Finally, the first big phone of the year. The HTC One (codenamed M7) broke new ground both in hardware and software. On the physical side, it was a large (but not huge), sleek phone, milled from a single piece of aluminum and a pair of stereo speakers actually facing forward. I still can't say enough about those speakers. They change the way you use a phone.
The HTC One was a bit complicated on the software front. The new Sense 5 was a bit toned down over previous iterations, which was nice, and still very useable. This is where HTC introduced us to its new "Ultrapixel" camera. It was a mere 4 megapixels but added the ability to take 3-second "Zoes" and combine them with still images and traditional video for the excellent themed Video Highlights. That may still be my favorite feature of 2013. And don't forget BlinkFeed.
But HTC struggled with nomenclature — at times we even saw marketing arms confuse Zoes and Video Highlights and Zoe Share and regular sharing. None of it was overly difficult to understand, piece by piece, but there were a lot of moving parts to explain to the users. I had two full days of behind-the-scenes briefings with HTC on the phone, and even then it took me a week or so of actual use to really wrap my head around it.
And then the HTC One struggled some with initial supply issues. And lawsuits. And with marketing constraints (ie a smaller budget) than competitors. Even Robert Downey Jr. can only do so much.
Still, the HTC One absolutely is one of my favorite phones of the year. The company is making strides in getting software updates to its phones more quickly. Here's to hoping for a better 2014 for HTC.
Late February: Mobile World Congress
Back in Barcelona, Spain, but at a new venue. (I suppose that means absolutely nothing unless you're there, but for those of us at MWC, it was kind of a big deal.)
We hit the ground running with Samsung — quite literally, as a late-scheduled briefing took me straight from the airport to a hotel conference room on what usually is just a travel day. There we got our first look at the Galaxy Note 8.0. Later in the week Samsung announced its KNOX security platform, with the aim of finally bringing some sense to Android in enterprise. Samsung also rolled out its HomeSync living room system, but that hasn't really gone anywhere yet. And in the midst of all this, it announced an event for March 14 in New York City for what could only be the Galaxy S4.
LG's always come big at MWC. And, pardon the pun, it did so with the LG Optimus G Pro — a 5.5-inch smartphone that basically (and rather unabashedly) was its version of the Galaxy Note. I still prefer the design of the G Pro, actually. It was the first oversized phone that I felt pretty comfortable using. The G Pro was also the first phone other than the Nexus 4 to have a Photosphere-like camera function. (LG's is called VR Panorama.)
ASUS and Sony brought new fare, as did Huawei and ZTE, but none of those really has any traction here in the U.S.
March 14: Samsung Galaxy S4
Just a couple weeks removed from MWC, Samsung brings thousands to Radio City Music Hall (and more outside in Times Square) for the unveiling for the Galaxy S4. Much has been said about the event itself — I still think it was just bad, over-the-top Broadway schtick — but the phone itself was the reason to be there.
I remember walking out of our prebrief simply floored by the number of software features crammed into this phone. And the GS4 itself had a larger screen than the original, but in basically the same footprint. The GS4 might not be the phone for me, but there's no denying it's a great device. (Actually, I think I prefer the water-friendly GS4 Active.)
It's easy to say that the Galaxy S4 is just more of the same — in the same way that the iPhone 5S is just more of the same. You can do it, and it's an easy argument to make, but that's lazy and hardly is a bad thing. Samsung has sold millions and millions of these things. It'll continue to do so.
April 2013: Facebook Home and the HTC First
You can't help but be at least a little excited about being summoned to Facebook HQ. By the time Mark Zuckerberg (who looks even younger in person) stepped on stage, we pretty much knew what we were getting. Part software, part hardware.
Facebook Home was an interesting proposition — bringing your news feed to your lockscreen. And it was a very nicely designed, presenting your friends' pictures and status updates where you'll see them first and foremost. Problem is, not every photo or update is worth that sort of screen real estate. (Have friends who show off ultrasounds and you'll know what I mean.)
That event also is where we got the HTC First. Finally, an LTE-capable smartphone of "normal" size — all of 4.3 inches — and easily reverted from Facebook Home to a "stock" Android experience. It was an AT&T exclusive in the states, though, locking out many. And the camera was just OK. And while the phone cost just $99, that was with a two-year contract. And this phone simply was not worth two years of contractual life. How bad did things get for the HTC First? It never even launched in the UK as planned.
The one thing that lives on from Facebook Home, however, is the excellent new messaging scheme. Chatheads float your friends' faces above everything else on the screen, making it easy to hop in and out of a conversation. Even if you're not a fan of Facebook messaging, you've got to appreciate the design here.
May 2013: Google I/O and CTIA (and JLo and A-plus-K) — and the Android Central App!
Google's annual developer conference in San Francisco was a little different this year. Just a single keynote address, on the first day — but with a surprise appearance by Larry Page!
The broad strokes: A whole bunch of low-level features to be added to Android. Better mapping. Even better search results. Vastly improved photo features in Google+. And probably more important for our purposes — Google Play Services picks up a wealth of features that might otherwise have required full system updates. Plus, Google Play Games Services, and Google Play edition devices. Proper beta testing. Hangouts takes over messaging. All Access Music is launched.
And the first Explorers with Google Glass are everywhere.
Kind of a big week.
Home for the weekend, then off to Las Vegas (again) for CTIA. There's nothing more boorish than a blogger complaining about an event — we're all lucky to be able to do this for a living — so I'll just say this: I took probably the greatest event picture of my life at a press conference here — Jennifer Lopez! — as well as some good shots of Ashton Kutcher. So that was that.
But the biggest news? We finally launched the official Android Central App!
Also in May: Talk Mobile 2013 is finally announced.
June 2013: Summer doldrums? Not hardly ...
June didn't see any major events, but that didn't mean we weren't busy. Consider:
- A major update to the Gmail app.
- Talk Mobile 2013 begins.
- Vine launches on Android.
- We throw a pretty awesome Talk Mobile party in New York City. (Catch the full video here.)
- OK, Samsung does have one event in London. We get new colors for the GS4, cameras that run Android, and a dual-booting Android/Windows tablet.
- Sony unveils the monster Xperia Z Ultra.
- OUYA finally goes on sale.
- The first Google Play edition phones go on sale.
And that was just the first half of the year, folks. We'll take a look at the back half later this week.