With the decline of WebOS and Blackberry, the contest for the best mobile OS has largely been narrowed to just three: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (WP7). Each operating system has its benefits and its downfalls, and as each matures, it will be interesting to see which adds the killer features to sway the majority of users. At this point, it’s obvious that Apple has the app crown for now, Google owns the customization realm, and Windows is catering to business users and anyone looking for something sophisticated and modern.
As someone who has used all three systems over the years and generally kept up with the news for each, I feel I can provide a decent overview of where they stand today. The sad truth is that all the OS hopping I’ve done is because each excels in a few areas over the others, but there is no one OS to rule them all.Hit the jump for a detailed comparison.
What makes the perfect smartphone UI? Based on the game-changing iPhone system, perfect would appear to at least include fingertip-sized app icons, a top-mounted status bar, and a few home screens. Ever since Apple unveiled the iPhone, other companies have been clamoring to get a piece of the action. Since iOS is by far the most profitable platform in the mobile industry, and a veritable boon for Apple, it’s no wonder that everyone wants a piece of the pie. Below is a summary of where each stands today.
Apple’s iOS platform can no doubt be considered the crown jewel of the mobile industry. Apple’s commission-churning App Store was the first of its kind, which meant it had a leg-up on other systems. The App Store is predominantly the venue of choice for developers and that means most apps are created for iOS first. If you’re an app junkie, iOS is your scene.
Aside from the App Store, iOS also excels in design. Every screen in the iOS system feels comfortable, and by that I mean that Apple has designed the platform in a beautifully uniform way. No matter where you are in the OS, you know how to operate.
Even if you arrive on a screen you’ve never seen before, you’ll likely know where to swipe, gesture, or flick to get the desired result. This reason alone is why iOS is great for users new to the smartphone market. Anyone who has toyed with their friend’s iPhone or iPad can understand the basic concepts fairly quickly, and that pick-up-and-play characteristic means that many buyers seek out the iPhone as their smartphone of choice.
Although I’m reviewing software, let me veer to the arena of hardware for one moment. Apple’s iPhone iterations have been fairly standard for the last few years. Sure, the iPhone 4 brought on an additional glass back and a more svelte look than the iPhone 3g, but buttons and screen size remained largely the same. If you want the iPhone experience, you’ll be enjoying it on a 3.5” screen for the time being. While the screen does have an incredibly sharp Retina display, real estate is still important, and that’s where I’ve noticed a key difference in iOS.
The standard-sized banner ads in apps or on webpages takes up a significant portion of the already small 3.5” screen, Retina display or not. With Android or WP7, ads are simply less prevalent or the availability of larger screen sizes makes them less noticeable. Consider this a side-effect to the first-party exclusivity of iOS.
Furthermore, iOS is closed-source. That means unless you want to escape the software confines via jailbreaking your device, there is not a lot of customization to be found. Apple and the developers control how things look and interact.
The good news is that by keeping the OS in-house, Apple is able to provide software updates across its devices in one fell swoop. The bad news is Apple loses out on the potential for independent developers to make their system better. Looking at the heavy software modifications that some Android users create makes me believe there are at least some facets of iOS that Apple should open for independent development. All that said, however, iOS is definitely still the mobile platform to beat.
iOS excels at the following:
- iOS will be the first platform for many new apps, and often the only platform.
- I know what to expect when it comes to app layout and interaction.
- Fragmentation is greatly reduced meaning I won’t have to wait for a third-party provider to update my device to the latest iteration.
iOS is still not perfect because:
- The advertising integration costs valuable screen space on an already diminutive panel.
- iOS is closed-source, meaning system-level customizations are at the discretion of Apple alone.
Windows Phone 7
I had my first taste of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) a few weeks ago with the release of the Nokia Lumia 900. Many reviewers claimed it was the handset to finally display the full potential of the platform. Many prior devices looked to be cobbled together from leftover manufacturer parts for Android phones, but the Lumia 900 has the flagship design to combat the iPhone or Galaxy Nexus. Having used iOS and predominantly Android up to this point, I had shrugged off the WP7 fan boys as carryovers from the earlier Windows phone days and fully expected WP7 to be built on a tired framework. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!
My first interactions with Windows Phone 7 were quite positive. The innovation in software brings a breath of fresh air to the mobile OS doldrums. Say what you will about Microsoft’s “overflowing typography” approach to design, but at least it’s comparatively original and works well. The first thing I noticed was its quickness. This may be a personal opinion, but I feel that both Android and iOS (no matter how many cores the CPU has) tend to have a tiny bit of lag when opening apps or navigating menus. Windows Phone 7 feels genuinely snappier, not quite instant, but closer than the other two.
Another small change I appreciated was WP7’s location of the browser’s address bar at the bottom of the screen. It just makes sense to put the bar closer to the keyboard so you don’t have to stretch your thumb to the top of the screen just to navigate to a new page. It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s an example of a conscious effort in rethinking mobile OS interaction.
Windows Phone 7 also has a better software keyboard.
Windows Phone 7 also has a better software keyboard. I know this because my brother-in-law is a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fanatic and, when using the WP7 keyboard, exclaimed, “I can fly on this thing”. His current phone is an iPhone 4S so it’s definitely not a matter of older hardware. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the keyboard’s greatness, whether it’s better word prediction or faster spell correction, but it is a strong selling point if you type a lot of emails or text messages.
I also appreciated the apps (though there are fewer of them) on Windows Phone. The app tiles are akin to icons, but often have the functionality of widgets. This means that home screen icons can sync up-to-date information throughout the day. Furthermore, many of the apps carry over WP7’s UI, which makes for a seamless feel in OS design, much like Apple’s iOS. Lastly, Windows Phone 7 offers some exclusive features that the others cannot provide, like first-party Microsoft Office support and Xbox Live integration. The former may be important for business users and the latter may find a niche among gamers.
Windows Phone 7 is not without its flaws, however. Firstly, and most glaringly, the Windows Phone Marketplace is severely lacking in apps compared to iOS and Android. As the third-place mobile OS, I understand the difficulty in convincing developers to code their apps for yet another platform. It’s really a shame because WP7 has the potential to be great.
Hopefully, with the piece of mind that WP7 apps will also be compatible with the Windows 8 desktop, we will begin to see more and more apps flow in. Another issue with WP7 is the lack of strong devices running the platform. Yes, the Lumia 900 is a good start, but it resides solely on AT&T’s network and WP7’s representation on Verizon is virtually nonexistent. Lastly, Windows Phone does not offer enough customization. Its framework operates in the same closed-source vein as Apple’s iOS, where I believe it could flourish with some openness for the creative users out there.
Windows Phone 7 excels at the following:
- It has a freshly-designed snappy UI that even integrates into some apps.
- The stock software keyboard is a dream.
- It has first-party support for Microsoft Office and Xbox Live
Windows Phone 7 is still not perfect because:
- Windows Marketplace needs a lot more apps to have a fighting chance against the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store
- WP7 needs a flagship device on every major carrier in the U.S.
- It’s closed-source nature means it has a disappointing lack of customization.
Google’s Android operating system has had its ups and down since its inception, and frankly, in the past, it has felt a bit unpolished. Compared with Apple’s release of iOS to a few devices, Android is promiscuous, showing up in its various forms across a huge spectrum of devices on account of its openness.
This fragmentation has often been one of Android’s major criticisms and understandably so; sometimes getting the latest and greatest firmware update means relying on forums of independent developers for updates or (begrudgingly) waiting it out for the device manufacturers to distribute the official update to your device six months after its original release. All the branching also makes it hard for developers to assure full functionality of their apps across the seven iterations of Android.
Having said that, Android garners big praise from the geek crowd for the aforementioned ability to boot up software that may not originally headed to a device. These custom ports (called ROMs) often breathe new life into an older phone, freeing it of a wireless provider’s “bloatware” and boosting the overall speed with a series of tweaks or software modifications. This is just a part of a grander theme that makes Android the OS of choice for many: customization.
Even if users don’t want to dive into deep modifications, there are plenty of options for creating a one-of-a-kind OS. No other mobile OS allows the amount of nitty gritty prodding and pinching that Android does. Android is a nerd’s dream come true: an unlimited cache of mobile OS flavors and toppings for the taking.
Another option that Android brings to the table is widgets. Widgets are a great addition to a mobile ecosystem because they provide a home screen sneak-peek of an app without actually opening it. Sure, it only saves you a few taps, but being able to preview an email or check the weather without scrolling to the app is a feature that is much appreciated. Yes, Apple has tried to bring some of this functionality to iOS with notification center, but Android has had it baked in all along and for this reason, many app developers have created widgets for their products.
I’d be remiss for not also referencing Android’s list of devices. To be honest, the rate of new device releases is overwhelming, and in the race to create more handsets, quality sometimes suffers. The good news about all these options is that anyone can find the perfect device with a little shopping around. I personally wanted a large AMOLED screen, so I use a Samsung Galaxy SII, whereas my wife opted for the smaller-screened Droid Incredible, declaring “you can barely get that phone out of your pocket in time to answer a call.” So be it, but even having the option of a larger screen snags some users to Android’s side. 2
Android does lack the uniformity of iOS or WP7; there needs to be more cohesion. I think it could ultimately be great, but Google appears to treat Android as a second-class citizen in its ever-growing list of projects, with each update offering good features but usually leaving out design cues or core-level overhauls. At least with Ice Cream Sandwich, Android’s latest release, some parts are beginning to finally reach a semblance of finality, and Google is attempting to reconvene the division of its OS between phone and tablet. I love Android for its malleability; it’s nice to have free reign to change the look and even the performance of my device on a whim. Granted, doing so takes plenty of research and sometimes involves some risk, but this ability to completely overhaul my handset has prevented me from throwing away money on new devices just for a small speed increase.
Android excels in the following:
- The bevy of customization options mean I won’t get bored with my phone and can even squeeze some extra life out of it as new technology is released.
- The availability of home screen widgets saves me hundreds of taps a day.
- Android is offered on hundreds of devices across every wireless provider, meaning there’s always a solid choice no matter the carrier.
Android is still not perfect because:
- The fragmentation the Android ecosystem means developers carry the burden of making sure apps are compatible across all OS releases.
- Due to its openness, Android’s design never feels cohesive. Manufacturers jam unnecessary software onto the devices, resulting in decreased performance.
In the modern landscape of the “big 3”, Apple and Google are content with mimicking each other’s desired features as they coast along happily as the number 1 and 2 mobile ecosystems, and for good reason as both have a solid consumer backing.
Windows Phone 7 certainly has a much-needed freshness and with the integration of Windows 8, it could be the OS of the future if it doesn’t fall victim to a lack of apps and flagship devices. Hopefully based on this overview, you can find the mobile OS that is right for you. It certainly seems that no one OS has it all so best of luck in your journey.