Google had a tumultuous 2012, full of dizzying highs (dropping its newest hardware from a blimp) and gut-wrenching lows (watching an enigmatic blonde turn and walk away). Here are the best and worst and overall biggest news stories from 2012 for Google.
10. Google Maps for iOS
Apple’s homebrewed mapping application for iPhones, iPods, and iPads turned out to be so disastrously bad that Google became a sort of thwarted savior. Although it took awhile, Google’s Maps app eventually returned to iOS 6, instantly becoming insanely popular.
The story: “Google is putting the final touches on its new maps app, which means that it shouldn’t be too long until the app is released. More interesting is that the app may come with turn-by-turn navigation, a feature missing in the older default iOS Maps app. All of this is great news for Google, but one thing stands in its way: Apple. Once Google finishes and submits the app to the iTunes Store, Apple will have to decide whether to approve it. And who knows how long that process will take — if it happens at all.”
9. Google+ marches on
Google+ launched over the summer of 2011, but early-adopter mania quickly cooled into early-adopter griping. In 2012, the social network grew steadily, adding community members, beefing up current features, and adding new ones — and finding a strong foothold in niche communities along the way.
The story: “More than 500 million users have upgraded to Google+ accounts, while 235 million are actively using Google+ features … 135 million users are active in the Google+ stream proper, the service’s equivalent of Facebook’s news feed. The numbers show significant growth from June, when Google+ only had 250 million total accounts and 150 million monthly active users. ‘This enthusiasm, we think, stems from our building tools that build real relationships — in a live hangout, around a breathtaking photo, or with an inner circle of friends,’ Google exec Vic Gundotra wrote.”
8. Google backs away from Open Compute
As a pioneer and champion in web standards, open-source technologies, and general freedom of information and technology, we would have expected Google to jump into the open-source hardware movement. Unfortunately, that movement is being spearheaded by Facebook’s Open Compute initiative, and Google refuses to play along.
The story: “Google exec Urs Hölzle’s response is somewhere between cynical and stone-cold realistic, acknowledging that the competition between these two titans is, at every level and with every product, growing more strenuous all the time. ‘In an ideal world, I would love to do that,’ said Hölzle of Facebook’s piecemeal approach to open-sourcing its own servers. ‘We’ve selectively tried to share as much as possible. We have tons of contributions to Linux and open source [software] projects. … But hardware is more difficult.’”
7. Google Fiber comes to life
After months and months of rumors, reports, and sightings, Kansas City citizens finally got a taste of Google Fiber, the company’s wicked-fast Internet service (think 800 megabits per second fast). Kansas City is a pilot market for what Google hopes to make a larger project in years to come.
The story: “Google unveiled its Fiber service in July and promised to bring crazy-fast Internet speeds that are “100 times faster than today’s average broadband” to neighborhoods (or “fiberhoods”) in the Kansas City area. The Kansas City Star notes that this promise has spurred lots of development and encouraged people from outside KC to start new businesses there.”
6. Google gets ready for app domination with Play
The Android Market dealt with malware, buggy games, and general jankiness from Day One. So when the Android operating system finally came of age — and came to parity with Apple’s iOS — Google gave its app marketplace a ground-up overhaul, including a U.I. facelift and a total rebranding.
The story: “With the Play rebrand, Google exec Chris Yerga said, ‘We wanted to convey fun, the notion that there’s a lot to entertain here. And we wanted to convey that this is a destination for premium content.’ In other words, a more expensive-looking storefront would, Google wagered, make consumers more comfortable with putting their money into Android platform apps.”
5. Google Ventures’ slapfight with Y Combinator
Google Ventures really came into its own this year with the launch of its incubator-like Startup Lab. But not everyone in Silicon Valley welcomed the new players with open arms.
The story: “In a leaked memo, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham cautioned his portfolio companies not to accept deals from Google Ventures, calling that firm’s funding term sheets lowball offers. ‘If you’re talking to Google Ventures, you may be part of a pattern. … Just focus on other investors instead. Maybe you’ll find enough from other sources that you can blow off GV.’”
4. The Nexus 4
Google’s unveiled its latest smartphone at the company’s developer conference in May and was the talk of the tech town thereafter. Even now, news about the phone’s availability is still making headlines.
The story: “Overall, the Nexus 4 feels much more solid than the Galaxy Nexus. … Most impressive about the Nexus 4 is its speed (except for its slow network capabilities). With a quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor running at 1.4 GHz and the latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, this phone is simply a speed demon. Grabbing new apps, juggling between them, and loading complex games was the fastest I’ve seen in an Android phone so far — and I’ve tested quite a few of them.”
In the trial of the year, Oracle and Google duked it out in a San Francisco courtroom. At stake were the Android operating system and the idea that open-source software actually is open and free as its creators intended, regardless of who buys or licenses it in the future. Google ended up winning in the end, but most of the highly technical concepts were lost on the non-technical jurors and judge.
The story: “In sitting on the courtroom’s hard, wooden benches, I saw the basics of Java explained in terms at times clear and at times quite obtuse. I felt like I understood the arguments both sides were presenting, but only because I had taken a computer science course or two and had used Java in writing simple programs in the past, myself. The judge, on the other hand, had never dipped his toes into the waters of object-oriented programming. One of the most entertaining and excruciating parts of Google exec Eric Schmidt’s testimony involved the tech exec explaining to Judge Alsup how methods and classes work.”
2. Marissa Mayer has left the Googleplex
Marissa Mayer was one of the earliest Googlers and one of the company’s most visible, most relatable faces (and voices — her laugh is distinctive and infectious). In a shocking move, she left the company she helped start to go to Yahoo, its floundering competitor. The switch mystified many, but in looking over Mayer’s resume, we understood her reasoning.
The story: “Money, beauty, love, and a fabulous career — is there anything Mayer doesn’t have? The one thing she lacked is the sole reason she’s now at Yahoo: Power. At Google, Mayer had become a bit of a figurehead. While we’re sure she continued to work maniacally hard on her projects (she is known for pulling 130-hour work weeks and trading sleep for a few more hours in front of a laptop), she was passed up for an important promotion in the spring of 2011. … Her failure to achieve the SVP role was a head-scratcher to many onlookers.”
1. Google Glass
With its eye-popping debut at Google I/O and its appearance on the fashionable runways of New York Fashion Week, Google Glass is easily the most fascinating story to come from Google this year. The device first appeared in April; Google cofounder Sergey Brin gave the world a lengthy, extreme sports-ridden demo of a prototype during Google I/O in May. Glass, along with Fiber and a few other projects, are Google’s forays into the near future, and we’re glad we get to see them even in their most embryonic stages.
The story: “The really interesting use cases for Glass haven’t been shown yet and have little to do with broadcast. These use cases go beyond sharing and allow for retrieval of valuable, possibly non-social information. But Glass as it was shown today is another disturbing step toward an all-social, always-on web of connectivity that isn’t a means to an end as much as it is a cause in and of itself. It’s the hive mind, and in many ways, it’s already here.”