2013: The year in smartphones

It was the year that wasn’t. 2013 turned out to be a mostly evolutionary year for handset manufacturers, while people’s tastes solidified with just a few major players. Let’s take a look back.

The players on the field

This wasn’t expected to be a big year for Apple — 2013 followed Apple’s pattern of releasing a major phone in even numbered years and updating it in odd numbered years. While many folks here thought Apple should move to a faster design cycle, the folks in Cupertino gave us the mostly-warmed-over iPhone 5S, which doesn’t bring a lot to the table unless you’re an athlete or love fingerprint recognition. Still, it sold in record numbers just like iPhones of yore. The second iPhone of the year turned out to be a bit of a surprise. Apple released its iPhone 5C which was widely expected to be a phone for the budget-minded, but when the price came out it wasn’t so impressive. Apple really intends this phone for the more fashion-conscious, it turns out, and those younger folks turned out in droves. Apple must be doing something right, whether or not tech bloggers approve.

Samsung continued its dominance of the market this year, despite having not released a new phone since September of 2013. That may change, although pundits don’t expect the Galaxy S5 to hit stores until March. The S4 wasn’t much of a change from the popular S3, but Samsung’s built a brand name among the Android faithful and it’s enjoyed the popularity that comes with a well-built, inexpensive phone.

The search for second place in the hearts of the Androidians was the hot story this year. LG, Motorola and Google trotted out their phones with unique features and customization options in an attempt to grab the spotlight for more than a week. While all these phones are capable and stylish in their own way, and all are appealing to their target markets, but none of them captured the general public’s attention in a way that would cause fashionistas to demand them.

The big story in the Android world was, in fact, the fall of HTC. HTC gambled it all on its HTC One smartphone this past spring, and the initial reviews were impressive. Fabulous build quality — the first real Android phone to compete with Apple in that regard — a beautiful screen and breathtaking sound from a small device, said the critics. And yet, once the bloggers were done beatifying this phone… people just didn’t buy it. It’s hard to know why, but HTC’s lost money for the first time ever, and the very future of the company is now in doubt.

From the software front, Apple rolled out a great-looking upgrade in iOS7 and Android “KitKat” proved that you can have a really great Android OS if you want, but at this point the market is so mature that there really wasn’t a lot of fabulously new stuff in either OS, just enough window dressing to keep people coming back.

The ones on the bench

There is only one company that could look at HTC’s roller-coaster year with envy and that’s Blackberry. The company’s new phones and their new OS were an utter, total flop, and the backroom intrigue didn’t help. The company was going to be bought, then it wasn’t, then it was going to fail, then it wasn’t… but before laughing both Apple and Google should note well that it wasn’t that long ago that Blackberry was the undisputed smartphone leader. The message to the Apple and Android developers: Carpe Diem, folks… one day it will be your turn to be ridiculed.

And then there’s Microsoft. Microsoft swallowed up Nokia’s phone manufacturing division, a sad end for a company that once ruled the phone world and still holds the record for the most phones of a single model sold. Microsoft tried to convince the world that it wanted Windows phones, which despite having great cameras, good design and a slick app launcher… just don’t have enough app support. Nice try but not enough to merit more than a paragraph here.

2014

2014 promises to be a more interesting year. We’ll see an iPhone 6 most likely, maybe even one with a bigger screen. The Galaxy S5 will probably prove once and for all that there really is only one name you need to know in Android phones, and as for the rest? It’s hard to say. Hopefully we’ll see innovations that intrigue us and new form factors that wow us.