The 5 Most Successful Tech Launches of 2012

By our visiting expert, Ross Rubin.

There were many well-executed and successful products in 2012, some meant more to their companies than others. Whether it was reinforcing an ecosystem or a pillar in a comeback, five products from five different companies stood out for how they fared with so much on the line. They are, alphabetized by company:

Apple iPad mini. Creating a new category of products is one of the hardest things to do. While it had a bit of help from the netbook in terms of establishing a need for a second device with a 10” display, the iPad was marked by consumers rushing out in droves to buy something they never knew they needed. Apple had been able to hold on to a commanding lead in the tablet market. Low-priced competition, though, coming first from the Amazon Kindle Fire and then from the Google Nexus 7, have cut into its market share. Apple, which once rebuked 7” tablets, needed to respond, but its business model involves making money on hardware, unlike Amazon.

The iPad mini is larger and significantly more expensive than the rivals that preceded it, but Apple has preserved compatibility with leading iPad apps and even brought over . At 80 percent of the size of the iPad’s screen, it is really more formidable competition for the iPad 2, which sells for $70 more but has almost identical specs and features, than it is for the value-conscious Kindle Fire.

Microsoft Surface. As the iPad continued to take nibbles of PC market share and healthy bites of its mindshare, Microsoft was readying two versions of Windows to fight back – Windows 8 Pro for running on machines with traditional PC processors and Windows RT for the same kinds of ARM chips used by iPads and Android tablets. What most people did not realize was that one of those versions was heading for an all-new Microsoft device dubbed Surface. While Microsoft had created its own devices before such as Xbox and the ill-fated Zune and Kin phones, much was made of Microsoft’s entry into a business where the company had previously licensed software to other device companies.

There was no way around it; Microsoft was now competing with its own licensees. However, most overlooked that the competition was limited to an emerging class of devices, the Windows tablet and not the notebooks and desktops that comprise virtually the entire PC market.

Surface is a tablet at heart, but, in large part recognizing a heritage of productivity emanating from the PC, it can be used one of two keyboard covers that click in to the device — a slim one with a tactile keyboard and an even slimmer “touch keyboard” that responds to presses on a slightly raised surface. The latter works surprisingly well, but the slightly more expensive “real” keyboard doesn’t sacrifice much thinness for a dramatically better keyboard experience. Now, Microsoft just needs to attract the aps to make its touch interface more competitive with those of other tablets.

Nintendo Wii U. Like the iPad, the Nintendo Wii ushered in a new way of thinking about a kind of product that had been around for a long time, the home console. Its low price and focus on motion gaming set it apart from other consoles. Eventually, though, the competition struck back with more precise motion controllers (Sony Move) and ways of doing motion control with no handheld controller at all (Microsoft Kinect) and the Wii started flagging in sales as Nintendo focused more on its next handheld device, the 3DS.

With the Wii U, which retains a similar although slightly larger and more rounded profile of its predecessor, Nintendo is betting on multiple displays, embedding a touchscreen into the bundled GamePad controller. Different games use the GamePad in different ways; some are imaginative, others just duplicate what’s on the TV (and some can be played only on the TV). Available starting at $299, the Wii U also includes a feature called TVii that However, the competition isn’t waiting to see if Nintendo’s bet pays out this time. Microsoft, for one, has responded with SmartGlass, which allows many different tablets and smartphones to connect with the existing Xbox 360 for games and extra TV show content.

Nokia Lumia 920. Many years ago, before the rise of Samsung, Apple or even the Blackberry, Nokia ruled the North American cell phone market, but its smartphones never caught on the way here the way they did in Europe. And over time, iOS and Android started eroding share on its home turf. The Finnish company vacillated between its popular but outdated Symbian software and its advanced but unknown Maemo operating system. Ultimately, a Microsoft executive came on board to take the helm as CEO and soon struck a deal with his former boss to put Windows Phone software on Nokia phones.

Nokia’s first efforts in the North American market had modest success but didn’t move the needle much. Now, Nokia is bringing more to the table, combining more of the style of its original Windows Phone, the Lumia 800 with the larger display and LTE of the Lumia 900 while throwing in some advanced tech goodies such as a touchscreen that can work with gloves, wireless charging and an optically stabilized camera. The resulting Lumia 920 is exclusive to AT&T this holiday. It will battle with the HTC Windows Phone 8x for Windows Phone high-end bragging rights and the recently released Android-based Droid DNA on Verizon for carrier pull.

Samsung Galaxy S III. Unlike Nokia, Samsung has been on a tremendous roll, riding the success of Android and becoming the dominant handset provider for it and the leading handset and smartphone vendor in the world. The previous Samsung Galaxy S products were strong sellers but varied significantly in terms of branding, design and sometimes even specifications such as whether they included a keyboard. That’s all been pushed aside iwth the Galaxy S III, which reflects Samsung’s now significant marketplace power. It’s essentially the same regardless of the carrier on which you get it.

Like the Lumia 920, the Galaxy S III includes an NFC chip for tapping information. It can also play a number of fancy tricks with Wi-Fi such as displaying a video from a Samsung television or automatically send photos taken at a party to another Galaxy S III. Fast-moving Samsung has already surpassed the 4.8” display of the Galaxy S III with the 5.5” display and stylus input of the Galaxy Note II also available on all four carriers, but the older phone will still be Samsung’s more mainstream option for some time to come.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research and blogs at Techspressive. Please follow him on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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