Mobile OS shootout: iPhone OS 3.0 enters the fray


As soon as Apple rolled out its preview of iPhone OS 3.0, the comparisons to existing (and forthcoming) mobile OSs started flying. While the major update isn’t exactly a done deal, it’s pretty far along, and we’ve been able to glean quite a bit from our time with the developer beta we’ve been checking out. iPhone OS, Android, webOS, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, S60; if you’re in the market for a new smartphone, your choices have been getting exponentially more complicated lately, and 3.0 won’t make the selection any easier. Luckily for you, were here to make sense of a frightening and uncertain landscape. Read on for an in-depth look at the similarities — and differences — between modern mobile operating systems.


When it comes to OSs, it’s generally true that you’re only as good as your kernel, and these days, there’s no shortage of options in that department. Comparing core systems is difficult — each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, but we’d be lying if we didn’t say that the underlying structure of the iPhone OS is pretty robust. Since it’s built atop OS X, which in turn is built atop Unix, it tends to be fairly sophisticated and stable (even if Apple has managed to lag it up with its UI). Android is Linux based, though its basic functionality is sandboxed in a particularly healthy variation of Java. S60 and Windows Mobile may be more mature, but that age doesn’t always work to their advantage, and while RIM has done a tremendous job at updating its look and feel, the OS — which is based around a proprietary kernel — still showcases some of its ugly, underlying Java from time to time.

As you can see in the chart below, the basics slot these devices into fairly specific categories, though it’s obvious that Apple is trying to nudge its way into the enterprise world (the company went out of its way to cite business customer satisfaction at the preview event). Of course, we don’t expect to see the BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile leaving that space any time soon.


User Interface

Apple nailed it out of the gate with many of its UI ideas. Gestures, lists with inertia, and plenty of touch-friendly sliders, wheels, and buttons generally make the iPhone OS a pleasure to navigate. While Android borrows some of that functionality, its uneven UI still doesn’t match up (though Cupcake certainly makes a few welcome improvements). Windows Mobile and the BlackBerry OS have made some gains here over the years, but they still suffer from inborn deficiencies that are clear the moment you start using them (especially the Storm’s 4.7 implementation), and S60 has a long, long way to go before it’s up to speed. The only real competitor in terms of user-experience right now appears to be the Palm Pre, which capitalizes on many of the gains Apple pioneered and throws in a few tricks of its own, like those cards as well as a bigger emphasis on gestures.

A key innovation over the past couple years has been the emergence of capacitive touchscreens in mobile devices, which allow for lighter touch, greater display clarity, and true multitouch at the expense of stylus compatibility. The iPhone, webOS, and Android have all embraced the technology, but Windows Mobile and S60 aren’t quite there yet, largely because they still make use of UI elements too small to accurately press with a human finger. To keep up, they’ll need to get cranking on this over the coming versions. Of course, all of these platforms (save for webOS) can sport a virtual keyboard of some sort — a technology particularly suited to a capacitive screen — but we’ve yet to see a single one pull off a typing experience as solid as what Apple offers.

As good as they may be in stock form, both Apple and Palm leave users hanging if they want to customize — hell, changing font sizes is taboo with the iPhone, much less a total reskinning of the interface. If you’re into making your device all your own, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry are where you want to be; customization isn’t just allowed with these platforms, it’s practically encouraged. In fact, Microsoft pretty much touts the flexibility as a feature nowadays (a quick glance at this year’s MWC offerings is proof of that).


Core functionality

Now here’s a category where the operating systems really start to show their colors. While Apple is finally adding the promised — but delayed — push notification to its devices, it’s still lagging far behind in some pretty important areas. First off: multitasking. Much like an original Palm OS device, Apple seems stuck in the past with its open-quit-open app switching scheme, which it claims is in the interest of preserving battery life. Windows Mobile, S60, Android, webOS, and BlackBerry all handle true multitasking, allowing you keep multiple apps open in the background. The push notifications will help, but nothing beats being able to return to an active app, particularly if you’re doing something like loading a web page or using a map to get around.

Palm is smartly introducing a web-centric functionality called Synergy in its webOS, which allows you to pool contacts and calendars from disparate sources, while the iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile, S60, and Android still present mostly siloed options in that department (without some third-party involvement). Apple has made strides with its new calendar functionality — CalDAV support, for example — but it still doesn’t present anything as revolutionary for dealing with scores of contacts. We do give the company marks for finally, mercifully, allowing users to share contact cards, however.

A big problem that Apple has yet to address with OS 3.0 is its obnoxious, obtrusive notifications. Where Android and webOS slide a handy “tray” into view to let you know you’ve got something incoming, the iPhone regularly piles on one notice after another, leaving you with a stacked, productivity-stalling, ugly mess of pop-ups. Apple, you kill this kind of annoying garbage in your browser — why do you think users want it in their phone? Even older systems get this one more right than Apple does — both Windows Mobile and the BlackBerry OS use a mixture of pop-ups and background notifications. It’s perplexing that a company so concerned with usability and simplicity has done nothing to address the situation in three iterations of its software.

Still, Apple has certainly answered the call (no pun intended) on a lot of user-requested features. Stereo Bluetooth support, MMS, that new Spotlight homescreen (aka global search), tethering capabilities, unlocked Bluetooth support for the touch, turn-by-turn direction capability, and a whole lot more. The sad part is that these additions only really bring the OS to speed with almost all of its competition, making this update a victory, but still kind of a bummer if you take the long-view.

And don’t even get us started on copy and paste.


Third-party development

This is where Apple really shines. While Windows Mobile and S60 have had thriving developer bases for a while, no one has brought applications and app development to the forefront like Apple. It goes without saying that the company has revolutionized the way devs do business, and torn down dozens of barriers to entry in the process. No single company has made it easier for developers to create work (and profit from it) on a mobile platform. The new version of the iPhone OS seems designed to stoke that system, introducing 1,000 new APIs and allowing developers to offer things like in-game commerce and peer-to-peer networking.

Of course, the system isn’t without its negatives, and Apple has endured more than its share of (deserved) critics of its opaque and sometimes unfair application approval process. While they say 96 percent of apps receive approval, we’re fairly confident what gets left on the cutting room floor is hurting end users. Just think, with its current policies, you’ll never see an Opera or Firefox browser for the device.

Regardless, other companies are currently playing catch up to Cupertino’s game, with all of the major OSs offering some version of an application store now or in the near future. To date, none have been remotely as successful as Apple’s outing, but none have the luxury of being tied to a pre-existing revenue stream like the iTunes Store — and with the exception of Android’s Market, they really haven’t had time to marinate with the public. Only time will tell if companies like Palm, Google, and (gasp) Microsoft will be able to turn on the fire hose of development and go toe-to-toe with Apple.


Wrap up

Ultimately, there are loyalties and preferences that no chart can help you navigate. We won’t go as far as saying it’s a matter of choice — we believe that the newer, younger operating systems offer far more than the aging ones can at this point (unless you absolutely need something like BES). In particular, the improvements Apple’s made in its forthcoming update speak to many of the issues we’ve had since the platform’s launch in 2007, patching a slew of flaws in its mobile OS, and making the advantages of something like Android or webOS (what we know of it) a little less obvious. That said, you won’t find the open source freedom of the former, and there are a handful of innovations in the latter (yet to be roadtested, but extremely promising nonetheless). One thing is sure regardless of what side you throw your lot in with: the hype Apple created with its devices has spurred a space race in smartphones, and the end user is reaping the benefits.


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