Microsoft Surface with Keyboard Cover

This year, the mobile industry showed us what lies ahead for computing.

We saw surprising new devices that gave us a glimpse at what personal computers could look like several years from now. We got an operating system that straddles both desktop and mobile. And we watched manufacturers obsessively refine what smartphones and tablets can be.

While 2012 didn’t have any single products that were as exciting as when we saw the iPad or iPhone for the first time, I have a feeling we’ll look back at this year as a turning point. This is the year that significant developments in mobile shaped the tech world for years to come.

nokia windows phone 8 event - Steve Ballmer

The new platform wars begin

The mobile industry has been mostly about iOS and Android for the past few years. Research in Motion has been in a freefall in market share, while Microsoft struggled to find its legs in mobile.

But this year, Microsoft finally started to matter, posing even stronger competition to Google and Apple with both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. The software giant showed that the next platform wars will be all about uniting the desktop and mobile — something that Google and Apple still need to work on.

The latest version of Windows Phone actually runs a version of Windows 8’s kernel, which in theory should make it easier for developers to create apps for both platforms. Windows 8 is an interesting beast as well. By making a tablet-focused touchscreen interface the centerpiece of its desktop operating system, Microsoft has literally placed a bet on the future. Eventually, most PCs will look like tablets, but for that to happen, there needs to be a tablet OS that’s as productive as a desktop platform.

And while Apple will undoubtedly introduce touchscreen MacBooks soon, it still has to deal with the fundamental divide between iOS and OS X. Microsoft may be off to a messy start with Windows 8, but it will surely have an easier time dealing with the inevitable union between tablets and laptops. (More on that below.)

The biggest loser in the future union between tablets and laptops will likely be Google. Android has always been focused on mobile devices, and it still took Google some time to fully adjust it to tablets. I don’t see much hope for Android when it comes to mimicking desktop productivity on future tablet-like PCs. (And yes, I know I may eventually eat these words. But the glacial pace of Android’s evolution doesn’t really give it much chance as a future Windows-killer.)

Microsoft Surface vs. the MacBook Air 13"

The line between mobile and desktop is blurring

You need only look at Microsoft’s Surface tablet to see how the face of mobile and desktop computing is changing. Is it a tablet, or is it a laptop? In truth, it’s both — though that idea has been difficult for even some tech pundits to wrap their heads around. The Surface the physical representation of everything Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8, and while I was disappointed with it in my review, I can’t deny that this is where we’re headed. Tablets need to get more productive, and laptops need to be as convenient as tablets.

Microsoft is gearing up to launch the Surface Pro early next year, which will run both Windows 8 apps and older Windows programs. Sure, it’s twice as expensive as the first Surface, but it shows that Microsoft’s bold hardware concept has plenty of potential.

Windows 8 has also spawned plenty of other notebook/tablet hybrids, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga (which we found brought out the best and worst of Microsoft’s new OS) and HP’s Envy X2. We’ll likely see manufacturers experiment with different variations on tablet hybrids over the next few years. That’s a good thing for consumers — eventually you’ll be able to get a hybrid computer that suits you perfectly.

iPhone 5 handson11

iPhone 5 and iPad Mini: The (small) shape of things to come

Both the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini show that, in the world of smartphones and tablets, smaller is often better. Down the line, I expect we’ll see more reasonable screen sizes in both smartphones and standalone tablets (at least those that aren’t trying to be laptops as well).

Almost paradoxically, most smartphone manufacturers have been obsessed with bigger screens over the past few years, to the point where they’re barely even “mobile” anymore. Last year Samsung’s 5.3-inch Galaxy Note was considered ludicrously large, but this year, 4.8-inch and 5-inch smartphones were practically the norm. (The Galaxy Note II, for the record, moved up a 5.5-inch display). Meanwhile, Apple’s “big” screen bump was from a 3.5-inch screen to a wider 4-inch display on the iPhone 5.

The iPhone’s smaller screen hasn’t stopped consumers from lapping it up. And it’s hard not to see the logic for bigger screens from other phone manufacturers — it was a very clear way to show how they offered something more than Apple. (Never mind that they didn’t have the same level of apps or build quality.)

But there’s no way the screen-size race can continue at its current rate. Once you start getting past 5-inch screens, you begin to inch into tablet territory, after all.

With little room to grow, we’ll likely see most smartphones sticking with screens around 4.5-inches in the future. I’ve found phones bigger than that to be too awkward to handle with one hand, and sticking with a more reasonable screen size also helps to conserve precious battery life. The iPhone 5 is still my preferred smartphone experience today, even though I also walk around with a Nexus 4, which has a big 4.7-inch display.

iPad mini 6Apple will have to offer a bigger iPhone screen eventually, but I can’t see it going much bigger than 4.5-inches. This is a company that’s so obsessed with one-handed usability that it chose to make the iPhone 5’s screen taller and wider, rather than just grow it proportionally like many other manufacturers.

The iPad Mini, meanwhile, shows precisely why smaller tablets are ideal. It’s my favorite tablet so far, right behind the 7-inch Nexus 7, because it’s so light and portable. Smaller tablets also have a big price advantage: The iPad Mini starts at $329, while the Nexus 7 starts at $199. Starting with the first iPad, Apple has been trying to the idea that tablets around 10-inches were ideal, but I’ve always found those to be too clunky for prolonged use, and too expensive for many consumers.

Eventually, there won’t be any room in the market for big standalone tablets. Smaller tablets will beat them on price and convenience, and hybrid notebooks will be able to offer big tablet-like experiences with the productivity of a full-fledged PC.

Wrapping up

In the end, 2012 was more about the gradual evolution of the mobile industry, rather than any singular groundbreaking announcements. But it was still an important year for anyone interested in the overall direction of computing. It was also a clear indicator that we’ll soon have little reason to isolate “mobile” from the rest of computing.