This year wasn't all politics and pop culture. A number of athletes, apps, and businesses thrived in 2012, changing the way we live and helping us make 2012 a little more enjoyable. So as the curtain closes on the year, let's look back at 10 things that rose to the top in 2012.
For the past two years, tech giants Apple and Google have been battling for supremacy over the global smart phone market share. History may look back on 2012 as the year Google took over the world with the help of many, many Galaxies.
Despite all of the fanfare over Apple's iPhone 5 in September, Android's market share skyrocketed, reaching 75 percent of all smart phones in the third quarter of 2012. The Android operating system captured this by running on a wide range of phones, including Samsung's wildly popular Galaxy line. While Apple and Google are neck-and-neck for market share in the U.S., Google has a near monopoly elsewhere, including some estimates that say Android holds a 90 percent market share in China.
And what fun is your smart phone if you aren't taking pictures with it? After being available only to iPhone users since its launch in 2011, Instagram unveiled an Android app in April, with its overly blurred and saturated filters allowing nearly everyone with a smartphone to share photos of everything from election results to ridiculous cat photos.
Shortly after hitting the 30 million user mark in April, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought the service for a whopping $1 billion. Not wanting to feel left out on all the riches, young people flaunting their wealth on the service morphed into one of the Internet's favorite blogs.
Instagram's popularity continued through the year, with Thanksgiving seeing 10 million photos shared—the most the service has ever seen. The amount of photos shared on that holiday doubled the total number of photos uploaded since the app's launch. That's a lot of sepia-toned turkeys.
You know you are having a good year when you announce to your competitors that you are going to take it easy, and still come away from the Olympics as the most decorated athlete in the history of the event.
Phelps won six medals in all during the London games, including four gold. By the conclusion of the games, Phelps' career totals tallied 22 medals, with 18 of them being gold. To put Phelps' record in perspective, that gold medal mark is twice that of the person directly behind him on the list. A fitting statistic, considering how often he left the rest of the swimming world in his wake.
At the beginning of 2012, Jeremy Lin was barely making it in the NBA, known for his Harvard degree more than anything he has done on a professional basketball court. But with the New York Knicks stumbling through their season despite a roster full of all-star talent, Lin was put into a game on Jan. 25, coming off the bench to lead the Knicks with a career-high 25 points in a win over the New Jersey Nets. The performance gave birth to the phrase "Linsanity."
Lin would go on to score 28 points in his first career start, drop 38 points on the Los Angeles Lakers in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, and can a game-winning three-pointer against the Toronto Raptors, sending NBA fans across the globe into a frenzy.
Lin's public notoriety skyrocketed in February when he landed on the cover Time Magazine and appeared on Sports Illustrated's cover in back-to-back weeks. Madison Square Garden, the publicly traded company that owns the Knicks, saw its stock soar to a 70-year high during Lin's run. Asian markets fought over the rights to air Knicks games that featured the Taiwanese-American.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, Lin left New York over the summer, signing a new contract with the Houston Rockets. Despite getting off to sluggish start in 2012-13 season, Lin recently showed a flash of what Knicks fans loved so much about him. Lin tied his career-high 38 points in a win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Having to descend 18 miles out of the sky to the Earth's surface doesn't sound like a winning formula for any human being. Except for Felix Baumgarter, who decided 18 miles wasn't high enough.
The Austrian skydiver set a new world record in August, free-falling from 128,000 feet (about 24 miles) above the Earth's surface. During the nearly five minute fall, Baumgartner became the first human being to break the speed of sound, maxing out at 730 MPH.
Baumgarter completed the jump, (along with two other practice jumps from 71,000 and 96,000 feet) despite the dangers of near sub-zero temperatures in the Earth's upper atmosphere, the possibility of his skin boiling if his suit malfunctioned, and the quirks of that pesky physical force known as gravity.
The project, dubbed "Red Bull Stratos," after the energy drink maker that helped sponsor the stunt, may have ultimately proved that the company's tag line as a myth. As Baumgartner shows, Red Bull does not, in fact, give you wings.
As high as Felix Baumgartner traveled for his jump, it pales in comparison to the heights Elon Musk reached in 2012.
Musk saw a decade's worth of work come to fruition in May, when his private space exploration company, SpaceX, launched a Falcon 9 rocket that successfully docked with the International Space Station, the first private rocket to ever do so. Musk likened the event to "winning the Super Bowl."
Despite his interstellar ambitions, Musk's ventures on Earth were also a huge success. Musk's electric car company, Tesla, picked up automobile accolades from two big car magazines despite being a whipping boy in the run up to the presidential election.
The rocket launch seems to only scratch the surface of Musk's ambitious space plans. In an interview with Wired magazine, Musk said he wants to sell private space flights to Mars for $500,000, eventually helping to build a colony of 80,000 people on the Red Planet.
Musk might need some help from our next winner if he ever wants a Martian colony to work out.
MARS CURIOSITY ROVER
After spending 10 years and $2.5 billion on the project, NASA saw its Mars Curiosity Rover plop down in Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 6.
The landing was broadcast live over the Internet, showing a raucous NASA crew hugging and celebrating once the unmanned vehicle safely landed. President Barack Obama praised the event, calling the landing an "unprecedented feat of technology" and a "point of national pride." He would later call the crew at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and call the feat "mind-boggling."
The crew involved with the Rover became so popular, one of its members, Bobak Ferdowsi, became an Internet sensation due to his funky hairdo: starting a meme known as "NASA Mohawk Guy."
Since landing on Mars, the rover has been investigating soil samples to figure out if the planet once harbored life, and whether or not humans will ever be able to colonize on the planet. It looks like NASA will have some time to figure this out. Initially thought to end by 2014, the program was awarded an extension in December, with plans to send another rover to Mars by 2020.
From the origin of the year's best memes to beating back kids who bully bus monitors, Reddit became a household name over the course of 2012. The social news site, run almost completely by its members, released data in June that showed just how powerful the Reddit community can be.
Its most popular channels, known as subreddits, attract millions of pageviews every day, with users contributing to everything from one of the Internet's biggest political forums to bulletin boards full of cute cat photos. "Redditors" were heavily influential in blocking cybersecurity bills put forth by the U.S. government, helping to organize an Internet "blackout" in protest of the Stop Online Privacy Act and Protect IP Act. However, the site saw its fair share of controversy during the year after a Gawker story revealed the identity of the person moderating subreddits where users posted inappropriate photos of underage girls.
The site's crowning achievement in 2012 came when President Barack Obama hosted an "Ask Me Anything" session during his presidential campaign. The conversation was viewed over 1.8 million times, causing the website to suffer server outages during the event. Obama answered questions about the White House beer recipe, student loans, and how young people could register to vote.
Halfway through 2012, weed could have been described as shoo-in for the losers side of this ranking. By September, the DEA had closed more than 800 medical marijuana dispensaries in California, despite a state law allowing the medicinal sale of the drug.
But on Election Day, long standing policies and stigmas associated with marijuana took a big hit. Voters in Colorado and Washington approved amendments that decriminalized weed, allowing the states to regulate the drug similar to the way states oversee alcohol sales. The measures had such a global impact that similar reforms are being talked about in countries like Uruguay and Argentina.
Some things take time to develop before they can really shine. Enter the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF file, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, and in the process, became as ubiquitous on the Internet as a "share" button.
Anyone (and seemingly everyone) with access to Photoshop and YouTube was filling web space with these video clips over the course of the year. Want to see McKayla Maroney stick her vault landing during the London Olympics? There's a GIF for that. Want to relieve that ridiculous moment from your favorite TV show? There's a GIF for that. Want to poke some fun at Vice President Joe Biden? There's plenty of GIFs for that.
The GIF was so popular this year, Oxford Dictionary named it The 2012 Word of the Year. Now if the public can only figure out how to pronounce it.
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Greg Otto is a news editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.