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Agence France-Presse
December 12, 2012
Smartphones hogged the technological limelight in 2012, whether the world's traditional or social media were fixated on screen size, features, data plans, quirky apps or patent-based legal disputes.
2012 marks the year that Android celebrated its fifth birthday by rolling out an operating system with useful features that was actually easy to use (even if, in the process Google accidentally deleted the month of December from the address book and calendar features). It was the year when Samsung firmly established itself as the Android equivalent of Apple in terms of quality, desirability and sales. The Galaxy SIII racked up 30 million sales in five months and briefly overtook the iPhone to become the world's best-selling smartphone.

This year, possibly millions of people around the world voluntarily queued outside stores overnight for the chance of becoming the first to own a new device that, in most cases, was not very different from the smartphone they already owned.

Although the smartphone can trace its roots back to 1983's IBM Simon, and according to the latest sales estimates, there are already 1 billion active ‘smart' handsets in use around the world, 2012 signaled the device's adoption on a massive scale. Canalys estimates that 636.2 million handsets were shipped over the last 12 months worldwide and, for the first time, in large numbers in countries across Africa and the Middle East. In May, China overtook the US as the world's biggest smartphone market and currently five of the top 10 smartphone owning countires are in the Asia Pacific region. And, as a result, new regions and new nations are creating and dictating smartphone trends.

For example, according to the latest Google survey, India smartphone owners are more prepared than any of their US or European counterparts to live without TV if it meant keeping their phone. A full 49 percent said they prefer their phone to television (compared with 27 percent of mature market users) and 56 percent said that they found their smartphones more interesting and entertaining than TV.

Likewise, according to the latest Apps Annie index, seven of the top 10 app publishers on Google Play (based on revenue) are now Japanese or South Korean, breaking the traditionally western stronghold on apps with a global appeal.

But what has caused this shift? The simple answer is the relative affordability of Android. Now that it is five years old, earlier versions of the operating system, that require only a basic processor (by current standards) to run, are open for any company to use. As a result there has been a boom in the sub-$200 smartphone handset market across the Asia Pacific region and Latin America and by 2016, these reliable yet basic phones could capture as much as 29 percent of the global phone market. As it stands, 2012 is the first year where feature phone sales have stalled but smartphone sales have continued to surge.

"Most mobile phone subscribers around the world can't afford to spend more than US$200 for a smartphone, on top of their service plans," noted Shawn Lee, research director at NPD DisplaySearch, "Low-cost smartphone manufacturers create these new products quickly without much investment, which has allowed them to extend their telecom subscriber base to emerging regions."