A few of the top technology stories of 2012 stand out for the big numbers they generated. Here are some of the events and trends that were especially dramatic in scale.
Facebook’s big year
Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room project finally hit the big leagues in May, when the company began selling shares of its stock on the Nasdaq exchange for $38, valuing the company at $104 billion. After a small uptick on the first day of trading, the stock price plunged over the next several months, dropping below $18 in September. It has since rebounded above $26, however, making the company’s market capitalization nearly $60 billion.
Between the May 18 IPO and early October, meanwhile, the social network added 100 million more users, bringing its total to a billion, dwarfing the other big networks. Twitter, for comparison, recently announced that it now has 200 million active users.
Mobile goes global
Global smartphone shipments will increase by 45.1 percent this year over last, forecasts market research firm IDC, to 717.5 million units (out of 1.7 billion total mobile phones). A big portion of that growth happened in China, which IDC expects to account for 26.5 percent of the global smartphone market, rising from 18.3 percent last year and surpassing the U.S. as the world’s biggest market.
Android was by far the dominant operating system on smartphones shipped in 2012, claiming 68.3 percent of the market, says IDC.
Samsung, which makes a series of Android phones covering a fairly wide price range, was the world’s leader in shipments this year. Market research firm IHS iSuppli projects Samsung will have accounted for 28 percent of new smartphone shipments in 2012, with Apple in second place at 20 percent. In 2011, Samsung’s share was 20 percent, to Apple’s 19 percent.
The tablet market also greatly expanded in 2012. Gartner projects 136 million shipments in 2012—up from 55 million in 2011. Apple still dominates this area, but competitors like Samsung and Amazon are having increasing success.
Overall, IDC says smartphones and tablets will represent 70 percent of the 1.2 billion “smart connected devices” shipped in 2012, with desktop and portable PCs combining for the remaining 30 percent.
As of November, 13 percent of all Internet traffic was headed to or from mobile devices.
Shale oil shifts the energy status quo
We’ve known for several years now that shale oil resources, easier to extract thanks to the emergence of fracking and horizontal drilling techniques, would change the energy map. But in 2012, the repercussions of the boom in unconventional oil production, especially in the United States, became more clear. In its annual World Energy Outlook, released in November, the International Energy Agency projected that by 2020 the U.S. would surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. In that year, the IEA projects, the U.S. will produce 11.1 million barrels of oil per day. The U.S. hasn’t produced more than 10 million barrels per day since the mid 1980s. Production fell as low as 6.9 million barrels per day in 2008.
The glut of shale gas in the U.S. means it’s cheap, making it more attractive to utilities as a source of electricity. Historically, coal has been the dominant electricity source in the U.S., but in late 2011 it dropped below 40 percent of the total generation mix for the first time since 1978. In April of this year, contributions from coal and natural gas were equal—both around one third of the total, according to the Energy Information Agency.
Since natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the result has been a small decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This year the IEA reported that in 2011, energy-related emissions in the U.S. dropped 1.7 percent, thanks to increased use of natural gas and a mild winter. Meanwhile, the Energy Information Agency reported that energy-related emissions for the first three months of 2012—amounting to around 1.3 billion metric tons—were the lowest for this period since 1992.
The rise of the MOOCs
This year will be remembered for lots of talk about the promise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Six colleges—MIT, Harvard, University of California-Berkeley, Georgetown, Wellesley, and the University of Texas—have teamed up to form the most high-profile example, called edX. A physics MOOC offered at MIT this spring drew 155,000 people from around the world, although only 7,000 finished the class.
Startup companies are getting into the mix as well. Coursera, founded by artificial-intelligence researchers, offers 210 college courses and boasts over two million “Courserians.” And Udacity, started by a team of roboticists including Google fellow Sebastian Thrun, offers 19 courses and so far has drawn 460,000 students.
Awash in genomic data
Genomic sequencing just keeps getting cheaper. As of January 2012, it cost an average of $7,666 to sequence an entire genome, down from $20,963 in January 2011, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. And as sequencing begins to have more applications in medical research, a new challenge is coming into focus: how to store and transfer all the information that sequencing generates and get it into a form that is usable for doctors and researchers. In March, an international research effort called the 1000 Genomes Project made its dataset—which at the time amounted to 200 terabytes—available to the public via Amazon Web Services cloud storage. That’s the equivalent of more than 30,000 standard DVDs.
Big data gets bigger
Big data might have been the biggest technology-related buzzword of 2012. The amount of digital information created or replicated grew to 2.8 zettabytes (a zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes), up from 1.8 zettabytes in 2011, according to IDC. That’s obviously a big amount of data. But to be “big data” it has to be useful, and IDC says that in 2012, only 23 percent of all the information created or replicated in 2012 would be useful “if it were tagged and analyzed,” and that “only 3 percent of the potentially useful data is tagged, and even less analyzed.” Of the potentially useful data, nearly half is surveillance footage.