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It's been quite a year for the largest tech company on the planet. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) has seen numerous milestones, including setting a new all-time high price of $705, as well as orchestrating several major product launches. It was also the first full calendar year after Steve Jobs' death, and so far Tim Cook has performed swimmingly as CEO. Let's look back at how Apple did this year.
A winning fiscal quarter
Apple kicked off 2012 by reporting a monster fiscal first quarter, after technically "missing" some Street estimates the quarter before it. That quarter remains Apple's record in numerous key operating metrics, including iPhone unit sales (37 million), Mac unit sales (5.2 million), top-line revenue ($46.3 billion), and bottom-line net income ($13.1 billion).
The real driver there was the freshly launched iPhone 4S, as overall iPhone revenue was 53% of sales. Despite bearish talk that the device was an iterative upgrade (which it was), it went on to help the company move more iPhone units than ever before.
The results sparked a tremendous rally that would last for several more months. With as many superlatives as Apple likes to utilize in its marketing materials, it's surprising that the company didn't bill this as "the best fiscal quarter we've ever reported."
So many iPads
A couple months later, Apple would launch its third-generation iPad and include a high-resolution Retina display. At the time there were still no credible threats in the tablet market, as Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) had yet to release a polished version of Android for tablets.
The search giant had already admitted that Android 3.0 Honeycomb, which launched on the Motorola Xoom, was rough around the edges and "an emergency landing" just to incorporate tablet support. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7 wouldn't launch for another few months.
The third-generation iPad launch propelled the device to a quarterly unit sales record of 17 million, although that ramp-up was magnified slightly by aggressive inventory channel build-up. Apple nearly crossed $10 billion in iPad revenue that quarter, and the product family continues to be Apple's fastest-growing line.
As an important and necessary competitive response to the Nexus 7 and Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) Kindle Fire, Apple went on to introduce the iPad Mini. The smaller version is larger than the competition with a 7.9-inch display, and was able to boast widespread app compatibility immediately since it used the same resolution as the first two iPads.
Apple then surprised consumers with a fourth-generation iPad just seven months after the third-generation model, featuring primarily internal upgrades as well as much broader international LTE support.
Let's talk iPhone
Further cementing the idea that Apple has hijacked Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC ) tick-tock strategy, the company launched a redesigned iPhone 5 in September. Similar to Chipzilla's practice of switching between advances in manufacturing technology and new microarchitectures, Apple has now taken to alternating years between incremental upgrades and new industrial designs.
Apple was able to produce a much thinner and lighter device, while substantially boosting performance in terms of its processing power and data connectivity. For the first time in the product's history, Apple also increased the size of the display. The company opted only to increase the vertical resolution, a direct contrast to much of the Android army, in order to maintain one-handed usability.
Best frenemies forever
There was also the culmination of a major global legal battle with Samsung, with Apple emerging victorious in California. The jury sided overwhelmingly in Apple's favor and found the South Korean conglomerate guilty of willful patent infringement for blatantly ripping off product designs. Sammy is now on the hook to cut a check for $1 billion and send it to Cupertino, although there will be plenty of appeals before that actually happens.
The U.S. was just one of many battlegrounds, and Samsung boasts its fair share of victories abroad, as well. The frenemies remain locked in intense competition while maintaining a critical supplier relationship. Samsung and its popular Galaxy S III are definitely giving the iPhone a run for its money.
New chip on the block
Deep under the hood, Apple made another major achievement this year in its never-ending quest for vertical integration. With the A6 processor found in the iPhone 5, Apple has reached a new level with its in-house chip designs. Instead of utilizing the cores it licenses from ARM Holdings (NASDAQ: ARMH ) , the A6 is truly a custom-built processor made possible by its instruction set license from ARM.
That's a level of chip sophistication on par with the likes of Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM ) and its Snapdragons, but also has important implications on the future of Apple's silicon. As the company reaches new heights with its A chips, the case for it eventually transitioning away from Intel processors in Macs in several years became a little more realistic.
All together now
The fourth quarter promises to be a record-breaker for Apple. Even its notoriously lowballing guidance will blow past the figures it put up for last holiday season. Apple is coming into the holidays bearing one of its most aggressive lineups, with 80% of sales expected to come from products launched within the past three months.
That includes redesigned MacBook Pros and iMacs, two of Apple's most important Mac products. With the latter, Apple has now completed its transition to Intel's newest Ivy Bridge processors (excluding the Mac Pro).
Even though shares have given up most of their gains this year, Apple's business is fundamentally as strong as ever. Who knows, maybe next year it will become the world's first trillion-dollar company.
With 2012 winding down, investors need to look at the case for Apple's opportunities in 2013. That's where The Motley Fool's new research service all about Apple comes in. Not only does it include a comprehensive thesis, but also senior tech analyst Eric Bleeker and I have continued to include new bonus reports along with regular updates for members. Get access to all of it by clicking here.