The year everything went mobile

Smartphones and tablets stomped all over the old-school personal computer in 2012. Society won't ever be the same

Topics: Best of 2012, mobile, technology, smartphones, tablets, personal computers, PCs, Apple, Editor's Picks, ,

The year everything went mobile

Packing for Christmas vacation, I contemplated my laptop, a MacBook Pro that weighs down my briefcase like a lead brick. Why bother? I wasn’t planning to work over the holidays, and my iPhone could easily handle all my routine Internet needs. It just didn’t make sense to lug the old thing around. As the truth sank in, I felt liberated. For the first time this century, I would leave my laptop behind.

A simple story, maybe, but in that personal shift you can hear the echo of 2012′s biggest technological transformation. Call it the year of the great untethering: In 2012 “mobile” triumphed. We’ve seen this paradigm shift rolling down the pike for a long time. Now it’s here. The decline of the PC is no longer subject to debate.

And that’s a big deal. The changing sales figures for desktops and laptops versus tablets and smartphones signify more than just an interesting tech business trend. This is a story about the reconfiguration of society around the small screen, a development that has implications for the media, entertainment, and advertising industries; for our privacy and our economy; for business and politics. If you’re not figuring out how to play in what the tech industry likes to call the “smart connected device space” then you have already lost. And if you are not paying attention to what these devices will do to us as well as for us, then you are criminally negligent. Society is changing fast as we get more mobile. Can we keep up?

Here are just a few data points from 2012 that fit neatly into one big tapestry:

  • “While PCs were the primary Internet connected device in 2000 (139 million shipped that year), today they represent just 29 percent of all Internet connected devices (1.2 billion devices to ship in 2012), while smartphones and tablets comprise 66 percent of the total.” (From ZDNet.)
  • On May 9, the most anticipated public offering in a generation, Facebook’s IPO, fizzled. The chief concern scaring prospective investors? Worry that the company would not be able to generate sufficient advertising revenue from users accessing social media via mobile devices.
  • On Aug. 14, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement could obtain GPS location data from cellphones without a warrant. The convenience of mobile phones, it turns out, works for Big Brother as much as it does for us.
  • On Aug. 20, Apple became the most valuable company of all time — a direct consequence of Apple’s extraordinary success selling iPhones and iPads.
  • On Aug. 24, a U.S. jury found that Samsung had violated three Apple patents relating to the iPhone, including Apple’s “tap to zoom” and “bounce back” interface design features. But the ruling was just one skirmish in a legal war being waged in dozens of countries between the two titans of the “smart connected device” age.
  • In October, the news broke that sales of PCs in the third quarter had dropped by 8.4 percent from the previous year. Analysts predicted that PC shipments worldwide would decline in 2012 for the first time in 11 years. Meanwhile, smartphone and tablet sales growth continued to accelerate sharply. For the fourth quarter of 2012, one market research firm forecast that tablet sales would grow 55.8 percent and smartphone sales 39.5 percent from the previous year.
  • On Election Day, Project Orca, Mitt Romney’s much-touted effort to leverage and coordinate the volunteer work of an army of poll observers through their mobile devices, collapsed. The failure wasn’t the only reason, or even one of the major reasons, for Romney’s loss. But the abysmal performance of Romney’s tech team was symbolic: His campaign blew it on mobile. #Fail.
  • On Nov. 29, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, announced his resignation. Industry reports attributed the forced ouster to Intel’s astonishing failure to  manufacture computer chips appropriate for the shift to mobile computing.
  • In December, the FCC, in response to surging demand for bandwidth driven by wireless devices, announced a major change in how the wireless spectrum would be allocated to communications companies.
  • In 2012, more emails were sent from mobile devices than from desktop clients.

All those items point in the same direction — our mobile devices are where everything intersects.

If you are in business, the ability to exploit the world’s rush to mobile makes or breaks careers and decisively shapes the fortunes of even the mightiest corporations. Just ask Scott Forstall, a longtime Apple executive who was terminated for bungling the introduction of an Apple Maps app for the iPhone. Or Microsoft and Nokia, two companies that lost their position at the top of the tech heap largely because Apple beat both firms to the smartphone. Competition has never been so fierce in the consumer tech space as it is right this second. Product cycles turn over so quickly, and there are so many competitors in the marketplace, both for fully assembled devices and their component parts, that anyone’s position at the top is increasingly tenuous. The triumph of mobile also signals a triumph of volatility.

If your livelihood depends on generating revenue from an advertising-supported business model, whether that be journalism or Internet search, you must figure out how to make your product work on mobile devices, or go the way of the dinosaur. This is particularly troubling for industries like the news business, which had yet to figure out a profitable business model for a world in which people were getting their info fix via desktop or laptop, and now suddenly has to make the shift to tablets and phones.

(The news isn’t all bad — some data suggests that smartphone owners consume news more voraciously than desktop troglodytes — simply because they can — which should provide beleaguered publishers with greater opportunities to “monetize” their content. But banner ads didn’t work very well on the old Web — and there is even less real estate to work with on the mobile Web.)

If you are a person who cares about privacy, you’ve never voluntarily made yourself more open to the outside world than when you put a smartphone in your pocket. Your phone, increasingly, knows where you are, what you are buying, what you are reading, watching and listening to, and, of course, who you are communicating with. Devices that are with us from the moment that their alarm clocks wake us up to the moment we set those alarms before we go to sleep know more about us than we might even consciously know ourselves. Sadly, progress in crafting up-to-date privacy laws is woefully far behind the state of technological innovation.

It’s troubling, this open door to corporate and government surveillance that so many of us are racing through. But in the wake of all that technological innovation and volatility are also signs of fascinating social change made possible by the triumph of mobile. The maturation of social media merged with mobile devices makes things happen. You might be stuck at the airport, or waiting for the bus, or sitting on the toilet, and you check Facebook on your phone and learn that Komen for the Cure has just dumped Planned Parenthood or a horrific massacre has shocked a small Connecticut town. You check Twitter and there is a link to donate to Planned Parenthood or the Brady Campaign. A few clicks later, and you’ve donated some cash, signed some petitions, sent an email to your congressional representative, and spread the news. And if we have learned one thing this year, it’s that if enough people make enough noise and raise enough cash in a short period of time, politicians and corporations notice and react. Just as entrenched business titans are stumbling as their foundations wash away before the onslaught of the mobile revolution, so too will entrenched politics shudder and wobble.

The smartphone is an accelerant. When we carry computers in our pockets that link us together, we carry with us the possibility for crowdsourced action as easy as our thumbs can manipulate a touch screen. We may look back at 2012 as the year when we just started figuring out how to actually use these things.

So yeah, I might be leaving my laptop behind when I head out for my break this year, but I’m still taking the whole world with me, wherever I go.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>