Google in 2012: Android soars, battles with regulators and a tricky new role

December 25, 2012

Google has had a strong year in 2012, watching its Android mobile platform continue grow and taking some interesting steps into hardware. Larry Page celebrated a year as chief executive in April and received generally high marks for his performance. The company sparred often -- and continues to battle -- with regulators on both sides of the ocean, which may change how it does business in the future. But Google had plenty to celebrate, too, with the introduction of a new Android operating system, several smartphones and tablets and an exciting future product, Google Glass. Here’s a look at the highlights (and lowlights) at Google in 2012.

Regulation: Google’s newest privacy policy, which unifies dozens of products under the same terms, went into effect in March 2012. The company faced backlash over the change, particularly from European regulators who said Google should be more clear about how it collects and uses data. The Federal Trade Commission declined to join European regulators in their criticism.

Google is also facing questions from antitrust regulators in Europe and the United States over its advertising and search practices. The company was said to be near a deal with the FTC early in December, but those talks have since shown signs of fraying, according to The Washington Post.

Critics said the FTC was not being aggressive enough by passing over accusations that Google is prioritizing search results from its products over its competitors. The announcement of an agreement -- once expected by the end of year -- has now been pushed back to at least January, The Post reported.

Google+: Google’s play for the social space had an interesting year as the company continued to report that Google+ was growing. Google’s latest update on the site revealed that the year-old network has 135 active million users -- up from 100 million in September. With the inclusion of people who use the company’s video hangouts feature, “+1” button and other elements of the network, that number jumps to 235 million. The company has continued to add features such as Google+ Communities, an answer to the Groups feature on Facebook.

Hardware pushes: Google has made some notable steps into the hardware space this year, launching branded smartphones and tablets meant to act as flagships for its Android mobile operating system. So far, Google hasn’t had any runaway hits, but its Nexus 7 tablet was a popular item on many people’s holiday wish list this year.

Other hardware experiments have been less successful: Google introduced and, within a few months, stopped production of a streaming-music device, the Nexus Q. The company is said to be working on a new phone through its Motorola Mobility unit next year. The Wall Street Journal reported that the new device, an iPhone competitor, is being called the “X Phone” within the company.

Meanwhile, the company continued to back its Android partners, many of whom were embroiled in legal battles with Apple over intellectual property. Page reportedly even met with Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to discuss patent matters.

Android: Google continued to see strong growth in its Android system. The system enjoyed its fourth birthday with news from the IDC research group that 75 percent of all phones that shipped in the third quarter of 2012 were running Android. With partners such as Samsung, LG, HTC and its own Motorola unit, Google continues to go after all tiers of the smartphone market.

The company released a new version of Android, Jelly Bean, at its annual developers conference over the summer. The new system introduced features including a new form of typing, a better camera interface and a more unified system between smartphones and tablets.

Free speech: The company also increasingly had to act in a new role in 2012 as it navigated global attitudes toward free speech. As The Washington Post reported, the company was embroiled in numerous incidents around the world where it had to decide whether to remove content from its YouTube video site.

In some cases, Google cited its own community guidelines -- which clearly advocate for freedom of speech -- while it deferred to local laws in other cases.

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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