Over the past decade, smartphones have taken the world by storm and recently, tablets have entered into the arena as well. These mobile devices are having a significant impact on our lives and are in fact redefining the way we access information and communicate with others. This is due to not only the hardware but the specialized software that these devices run and most importantly, their operating systems. In what follows, we will take an informative tour of modern mobile operating systems, their different types and usage across smartphone and tablet platforms.
Just like a PC can run different operating systems (like Windows, Linux, BSD etc.) or different versions of the same operating system (like Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 etc.), most smartphones can also run different versions of the operating system they were made for and in exceptional cases, they might even be able to run operating systems they weren’t made for. In general however, an Android phone will only run a version of Android while an iPhone will only run an iOS version.
To give you an idea of what we will be covering in this guide, here is the table of contents:
- Manufacturer-built proprietary operating systems
- Apple iOS
- RIM BlackBerry OS
- HP WebOS
- Third party proprietary operating systems
- Microsoft Windows Phone 7
- Microsoft Windows Mobile
- Free & open source operating systems
- Which smartphone OS is the best
Manufacturer-built Proprietary Operating Systems
Some device manufacturers use their own proprietary operating system for their phones and tablets. A good example is Apple, with iOS being the operating system developed by them for their iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad devices. Other examples include RIM who use their proprietary BlackBerry OS for all BlackBerry phones and tablets, and HP, using their proprietary Palm Web OS for their Palm series of smartphones and tablets. A characteristic of such operating systems is that they have a very consistent look and feel across all devices that they run on, the way Mac OS X appears and behaves the same way on a Macbook Pro as it does on an iMac or a Macbook Air.
Let’s now take a look at some popular operating systems in this category.
- Apple iOS
iOS is the operating system used by Apple in all variants of iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. While smartphones have been around since the 90’s, it was Apple that successfully managed convincing masses to switch to them with the release of the first iPhone in 2007 running the first version of iOS. At the time of its release, iOS wasn’t even capable of performing what most other smartphones operating systems had been doing for almost a decade – things such as true multitasking, data connection tethering, task switching, Bluetooth pairing, PC-like application installation using installer files, and dozens others – yet the first iPhone was received with immense enthusiasm by the masses, perhaps for not knowing any better.
The key to this success lay in an interface we would call ‘idiot-friendly’ that was targeted primarily at the least smart users to enable them to use a smartphone that was only a pseudo-smartphone back then. Other factors contributing to the success of iOS included smooth graphics, consistent user interface elements across apps, built-in iPod application, iTunes integration, an App Store for buying and installing apps and perhaps most importantly, a multi-touch finger-friendly capacitive touch screen that eliminated the use of a stylus while offering finger based gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, twist-to-rotate etc. These, coupled with the similarity with the hugely popular iPod Touch, resulted in the iPhone going viral and ended up in most people buying it as more of a status symbol of owning an iPhone, than for the utility of having a smartphone.
The introduction of the iPad in 2010 only added to the popularity of iOS. Much like the case of smartphones, tablets had been widely available for over a decade but it was again Apple that built upon the success of iPhone to bring them to the masses in form of the iPad, creating a modern tablet boom and leading to other competitors joining the market. With the iPad and the iPad 2, Apple still leads the tablet market share by a huge margin.
Due to its restricted nature, iOS limited users to only the features Apple decided appropriate. That’s when the development community decided to intervene and came up with Jailbreaking. This allowed power users to install additional apps not available in the official App Store and customize their iPhones beyond the standard features provided by Apple.
By now, iOS has improved a lot and as of the current version 4.3.3, it supports multi-tasking, audio and video playback to AirPlay devices, data tethering and several other enhancements, in addition to the above-mentioned features. Jailbreaking continues to play an important role in iOS devices and enables users to take their iPhones beyond the often ridiculous limitations set by Apple.
- RIM BlackBerry OS
This is the operating system used in all BlackBerry devices. Despite having been popular in corporate sector, BlackBerry devices are losing market share to Android and iPhone. However, they still have a loyal following of users who are used to the signature hardware keyboard of BlackBerry devices and the convenience of the built-in corporate features of BlackBerry OS. RIM’s attempts at entering the touch screen smartphone market haven’t been too successful due to the limited number of quality apps available, though their recently released tablet called BlackBerry Playbook appears promising. Playbook is the first BlackBerry device to ship with their latest OS called QNX which is set to replace the older BlackBerry OS. Future phones by BlackBerry are also expected to ship with QNX.
A recent development that might change things for the better for RIM is the Android App Player that promises to bring support for running hundreds of thousands of Android apps on BlackBerry OS devices, as demoed at the recent BlackBerry World 2011 keynote.
- HP WebOS (Previously Palm WebOS)
Palm – despite being one of the initial players of the smartphone market – experienced declining market share and dropping revenues due to their old PalmOS devices not being able to keep up with iOS and Android. Palm tried to counter it by replacing its dying PalmOS with an entirely new operating system built from scratch – WebOS. Although WebOS was built by Palm as a pretty solid and feature-rich operating system having a killer interface to match, it wasn’t enough to keep the company’s lost reputation. Eventually, at the verge of bankruptcy, Palm ended up getting acquired by HP in 2010. The acquisition was followed by HP’s announcement of continuing development of the Palm devices as well as WebOS under HP’s brand name.
At its core, WebOS derives heavily from Linux and uses several open source components, maintained at the Palm Open Source website. HP is heavily promoting Palm OS and releasing several devices running it, including HP Veer & HP Pre 3 smartphones and HP TouchPad tablet. While WebOS doesn’t have a prominent market share at the moment, things seem promising for this platform’s future.
Third Party Proprietary Operating Systems
Another scenario is proprietary operating systems built by companies that do not manufacture devices, but license their operating system to manufacturers for running it on theirs. The biggest examples are Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7, built by Microsoft and found running on smartphones by HTC, Samsung, Dell and LG, amongst others. These operating systems also have usually a consistent appearance and behavior across all devices, just like Windows 7 appears and behaves the same regardless of what brand of computer you are running it on.
Let’s take a look at these operating systems in detail.
- Microsoft Windows Mobile
You might be wondering what this now-obsolete operating system is doing in an article on modern mobile operating systems. However, no discussion on mobile operating systems can be complete without the mention of Windows Mobile. Back when PalmOS devices featured a grid of icons offering only the most basic built-in apps, BlackBerry OS and Symbian devices didn’t even have touch screens. and iOS wasn’t even around, Windows Mobile devices did almost all that modern smartphone operating systems do, and then some.
Windows Mobile devices were called Pocket PCs and were true to their name! The operating system had true multitasking, installation of apps using cab files, full file system access, registry access, options for replacing the entire user interface with another, integrated data tethering support, personal information synchronization and a complete office suite.
The platform enjoyed a loyal following amongst enthusiasts and lead to the creation of the famous XDA-Developers community where developers and power users from the whole world gathered to share their customizations and hacks for Windows Mobile devices. Later on, this community expanded to Android devices and is today the largest smartphone customization community online. Installing a heavily customized version of Windows Mobile to a device was as simple as connecting it to the computer via USB and running a standard software installation wizard on the computer, no ridiculous jailbreaking/rooting/recovery/commandline use required.
The primary reasons behind the fall of Windows Mobile were the inability of Microsoft to market it to the masses, little-to-no focus from Microsoft on developing an app ecosystem that would encourage developers to build apps for the platform, and the popularity gained by Apple’s iPhone, which Windows Mobile couldn’t compete against due to an interface that wasn’t finger-friendly and required the use of a stylus.
In 2010, Microsoft decided to abandon Windows Mobile altogether in favor of Windows Phone 7. It’s legacy however, remains. HTC Sense – hugely popular on Android – was initially made for Windows Mobile devices. Furthermore, Android’s default interface involving multiple home screens, home screen previews and widgets on each screen derives heavily from the interface of SPB Mobile Shell – a third party Windows Mobile interface that innovatively introduced users to this concept.
- Microsoft Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 was Microsoft’s answer to the flourishing smartphone world. With Windows Mobile left abandoned, Microsoft built Windows Phone 7 from scratch, and presented users with an interface like no other. Given the name of Metro, this user interface takes a break from the conventional icon grids used by most competitors and brought the concept of live tiles on the home screen, focusing heavily on the presentation of information to users in a fluid, unobtrusive way. The result looked impressive, to say the least. However, many of the signature features of Windows Mobile such as true multitasking, app sideloading etc. were dropped, drawing heavy criticism by loyal Windows Mobile users.
Although Windows Phone 7 hasn’t gained a major market share by now, things look very promising as Microsoft has announced a major update for fall 2011, bringing true multitasking and several other important features to the platform in a few months. Developments on bringing app sideloading are also under way. Apart from this, Microsoft is concentrating heavily on the app ecosystem in cooperating with developers and the Windows Live Marketplace has become the fastest growing app market today. Furthermore, Nokia has decided to switch from Symbian/MeeGo to Windows Phone 7 as its smartphone platform, and this alone promises to boost the market share of this operating system to a significant extent across the globe.
At present, there are over a dozen Windows Phone 7 devices available in the market, built by manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, Dell and LG. Several other manufacturers including Nokia have also decided to join in, and many new Windows Phone 7 devices are expected to be released this year.
Free & Open Source Operating Systems
Last but not the least, there are open source operating systems built by a company, a group of companies or a community of developers and made available for everyone to modify them in any way they choose, and install them on their choice of devices.
Examples of these operating systems include Symbian, the upcoming MeeGo and most importantly, Android. Device manufacturers fine-tune such operating systems to best suit their devices and often add additional features or interfaces to set them apart from other versions of the same operating system, and this often becomes their selling point. HTC has had a history of customizing Android for its phones and including a graphically enhanced interface called HTC Sense in an effort to enhance user experience.
Furthermore, such operating systems have a lot more customizations available in form of installable software that changes their look, feel and behavior, providing different entirely user experiences. Being open source, these operating systems also offer independent developers the opportunity to modify them from scratch and run them on devices not supported officially, or to bring an entirely new user experience to officially supported devices.
Let’s now individually examine major operating systems in this category.
When an operating system is open source, based on Linux, owned by Google, backed by all major mobile device manufacturers including HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Dell, Sony Ericsson, LG and countless more, and allows for endless customization, it is bound to make an impact. Initially developed by Android Inc. and purchased by Google in 2005, Android has become the leading smartphone OS in the world today, and is our smartphone platform of choice here at AddictiveTips. While it appeals more to the techies amongst us, Android has been received well by the non-techies as well, and with an app market boasting over 200,000 apps, there’s plenty to do with it as well.
Android runs on literally hundreds of devices including smartphones and tablets. With multiple new releases each year, the operating system is continuously evolving. At present, the latest version for smartphones is 2.3.4 Gingerbread while that for tablets is 3.1 Honeycomb. The upcoming major release scheduled for Q3 or Q4 this year is called Ice Cream Sandwich and aims to bring both phone and tablet versions together.What truly rocks about Android is the level to which it can be customized. With different launchers and widgets, the entire way in which a user interacts with the device can be changed. If you are an Android user or plan on switching to it, you must check out our Android customization series to see how to personalize it beyond recognition!
Android has already beaten iOS to become the most widely used smartphone OS in the world, though its app Market still lags behind the Apple App Store in terms of the number of apps by roughly 100,000 apps, plus iOS apps in general tend to be more refined than Android apps, and this is the only reason we can see for any rational person to choose an iOS device over an Android device, but that’s our personal opinion.
A few years back, Nokia and Intel decided to merge their Linux-based Maemo and Moblin operating systems to form MeeGo, and several other high-profile companies also joined in to contribute to the open source project. Things seemed to be promising, smartphone and tablet enthusiasts – including us – were eagerly anticipating developments to bear fruit in form of another Android to bring competition to the market and provide a further incentive for innovation, when all of a sudden a key player i.e. Nokia decided to abandon it and switch over to Windows Phone 7 as its primary smartphone platform.
While Nokia has still announced to stick with its promise of releasing one MeeGo device this year before abandoning the project entirely, things aren’t looking too well for the platform and unless Intel and the other companies involved really give it their level best, MeeGo might end up like one of those obscure Linux distributions that only the developers and their six friends use or worse, it could be entirely abandoned, though we hope that isn’t the case.
There is a saying, “If you don’t succeed at the first attempt, skydiving isn’t for you!”, and it applies too well in Symbian’s case. Symbian – in its various forms – has been the operating system of thousands of devices by dozens of manufacturers but despite its commercial success, it has failed to achieve any critical acclaim in the smartphone arena despite Nokia’s repeated efforts of trying to get it right. We are including it here only due to the number of smartphones running Symbian globally, despite a negligible share in the United States. In all other aspects, it doesn’t even come close to any of the other smartphone operating systems mentioned in this guide.
Nokia finally decided to let go of Symbian along with MeeGo to switch to Windows Phone 7 as its smartphone platform but without entirely abandoning it, as the company will continue to use it for its feature phones (phones that aren’t smartphones).
The future of Symbian in the smartphone world is practically over. With Nokia’s abandonment and more and more users switching to Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7 globally, it is safe to conclude that Symbian no longer has a place in the smartphone world.
Which Smartphone OS is the best?
Now that you are acquainted with all major smartphone operating systems out there, it’s time for this important question. The answer is: whichever works best for you! Here at AddictiveTips, we are all for Android and I personally don’t even like iOS one bit, yet I recommend iPhone to many people as it appears to suit them better. We would love to see MeeGo get released on a few high-end devices, HP WebOS gain more attention as well as apps and Windows Phone 7 become more open. Till then however, considering the development, the app ecosystem and the customization options, for most users, Android is currently the smartphone OS to go for.