The past year has been a remarkable one for smartphones, with the meteoric rise of Google's Android OS, the restart of Microsoft's mobile strategy with its much-ballyhooed release of Windows Phone 7 and the continuing success of Apple's iPhone, buoyed by its new availability to Verizon subscribers. Never has there been so much choice in the smartphone market. As a result, hype and overstatement have been the order of the day.
Which smartphone operating system really is the best? More important, which one is best for you?
If you're in the market for a new smartphone, choosing which one to buy has much to do with the operating system that runs the phone as with the hardware itself. To help you decide, I put the latest versions of the three top mobile operating systems through their paces: Android 2.3, Windows Phone 7 and iOS 4.3.
There are, of course, two other smartphone operating systems out there: RIM's BlackBerry OS and Hewlett-Packard's webOS. However, we decided not to include them at this point.
Although RIM still has a considerable presence, its market share has been plunging, dropping from nearly 36% to just over 30% in the most recent quarter, and its developer support has been anemic, with an estimated 20,000 apps available even though it's been around for far longer than the iPhone and Android platforms, each of which has hundreds of thousands apps. (Windows Phone 7, which was launched just last October, has about 9,500 apps.) In other words, it no longer feels like a contender.
If BlackBerry makes a comeback, we'll include it in our next roundup. We'll also be watching HP's webOS, which will be available on several new devices this summer.
In this roundup, I concentrated as much as I could on the underlying operating systems, not the hardware on which they run. To get the truest look at Android, I tested it using a Samsung Nexus S, which ships with a version of Android that hasn't been customized by either the device maker or the service provider -- it's Android as Google intended it. For a look at Windows Phone 7, I chose the HTC Surround. And for iOS, I looked at the iPhone 4.
I've compared the platforms in several different categories, including ease of use, app availability, features, integration with desktop and Web-based apps, customization and platform openness. Come along for the ride and see if you agree.
Apple stuck to its decades-long recipe for success when designing iOS -- keep it simple and elegant, and marry the hardware to the operating system in as seamless a way as possible. Google, meanwhile, true to its techie roots, gives you an operating system you can tweak and customize to your heart's content, although that also means you may sometimes get confused along the way.
Microsoft made what may be the biggest gamble of all, by designing a phone that puts accessing information, rather than running apps, center stage.
Like iOS, Android is app-centric, and so it features app icons front and center. The home screen is simple and stripped down -- all the app icons can be moved or deleted, except for three unmovable icons: the Dialer (for making a phone call), the Application Tray (an overlay that shows you all your apps) and the Web app.
There are also four hard buttons across the bottom of each Android device for bringing up a context menu, returning to the Home screen, going back a screen and performing a search.
As shipped by Google, Android includes five built-in panes, including the home screen. You can move among them by either sliding your finger to the left or right, or by touching a dot at the bottom of the screen that represents one of the panes. Each of these panes can be customized by adding widgets, shortcuts and files. So, for example, you can devote one pane to social networking apps and communications, another to news and feeds, another to entertainment and so on.
Overall, the interface is simple and straightforward. But at times it also has the feel of being not quite baked -- a little rough around the edges. It's as if the designers were still taking whacks at finalizing the design.
For example, there are inconsistencies in the way Android performs familiar tasks. Take the way it handles Contacts. Run the Contacts app by tapping its icon, and you'll come to a complete list of contacts, including those imported from Gmail, those you've input on the phone itself, and contacts from social networking sites such as Facebook.
If you run the Dialer app (to make a phone call) and then tap Contacts from inside the Dialer, you'll come to what looks like the identical Contacts list -- but that list does not include your contacts from social networking sites. Nowhere are you warned that they're not truly identical.
You may also have trouble finding some of Android's interesting features. For example, Android's Universal Inbox is extremely useful -- it puts all of the e-mail from all of your accounts into a single location. But finding it isn't especially easy. First you have to find the Messaging app, and from there the Universal Inbox. You would expect a Universal Inbox for e-mail to live in the E-mail app, but it's not there.
It's like this: If you want the most elegant, best-integrated marriage of hardware and software -- not to mention absolute simplicity when it comes to ease of use -- you want the iPhone.
This is the phone that launched the smartphone revolution (yes, the BlackBerry may have gotten there sooner, but the iPhone perfected it), and for style and ease of use, it can't be beat.
Apple's iOS interface is the iconic design that people have come to associate with smartphones: a spare screen with app icons arrayed in a clean grid, a single hard button at the bottom of the phone that returns you to the main screen, and tiny notification icons across the top that inform you about things such as whether you have a 3G connection, your connection strength, battery level and so on.
At the very bottom of the screen, above the hard button, are icons for the most important apps, the ones for things like sending e-mail and making phone calls. Because apps are front and center, it's easy to choose the app you want to run.
You can have up to 11 home screens with their own apps and folders. And you can drag and drop icons between screens -- you hold and press an icon until all of the icons shake, then drag the icon to the screen where you want it to live. You can group multiple apps into folders as well.
Windows Phone 7
The most well-known of the slogans Apple has used over the years is probably "Think different" -- but when it comes to smartphone interfaces, Microsoft is the one thinking differently. Whether you like that new way of thinking will determine whether you'll be a fan of Windows Phone 7.
Rather than taking an app-centric approach, as the iOS and Android platforms do, Windows Phone 7 is organized around a series of hubs -- displayed as tiles -- that deliver information to you or let you perform certain tasks. So when you fire up a Windows Phone 7 device, you won't be greeted by a screen full of app icons but a collection of large tiles.
In some instances, the tiles are little more than big buttons that, when tapped, launch standard apps for, say, e-mail. However, others deliver updates on changing information, such as the activity of your friends on Facebook, the number of unread messages in your e-mail account or the next upcoming appointment on your calendar. That's why the tiles are oversized, rather than being small icons -- they deliver useful information at a glance, without having to run the underlying app. If you're focused on getting information fast, this operating system is the easiest of all to use.
On the other hand, you get only two screens -- not seven, as you do with Android, or 11, as you get with the iPhone. All in all, the main interface and panes are the least customizable of any of the three phone operating systems.
There's another way that Windows Phone 7 differs from both iOS and Android -- instead of emphasizing how long you'll want to play with your smartphone, Microsoft 's ad campaign pushes the idea that Windows Phone 7 has been designed so that you'll spend less time on your phone. To a great extent, it delivers on that promise, but overall, Windows Phone 7 still isn't as intuitive, as elegantly conceived or as simple to use as iOS.
For simplicity, elegance and beautiful design, iOS has no peer. Android, while not badly designed, remains a bit rough around the edges. And Windows Phone 7 is designed to show information at a glance and isn't app-centric, so if you're the kind of person who isn't enamored with apps and just wants to get information fast, it's worth a look.
Apps and openness
You want apps? Android's got an estimated 100,000 of them and Apple's got even more; there are an estimated 350,000 apps available for iOS. The truth is, though, that as a practical matter, both operating systems have more apps than you'll ever need. Windows Phone 7, with about 9,500 apps, is still playing catch-up.
How you get apps on Android compared to the way you do it on iOS and Windows Phone 7 reflects the companies' different philosophies: Google has designed Android to be as open as possible, while Apple and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft, have decided to serve as gatekeepers.
There are a variety of ways to find and download Android apps. The primary one is the searchable, browsable Android Market, available both on Android devices and the Web. So you'll be able to use the market to download apps on your Android device, or else download them to a PC or Mac and then transfer them to your device. The Android Market is wide open and does not have the same restrictive policies as Apple's App Store. Google, for example, doesn't ban apps based on their content the way that Apple does.
Google's Market isn't the only place to download apps. Others can set up download markets as well; Amazon is said to be working on one, as is Verizon. And GetJar recently raised over $40 million in venture capital funds to build a third-party app market for Android and other platforms.
In addition, you can download and install apps straight from the Web without having to go through any market -- but setup can be confusing when you download apps that way.
Android also doesn't have restrictive policies about development tools used to create apps for it. And Android allows the use of Adobe Flash on its devices, something banned by Apple.
This app openness can have drawbacks -- it means that no single entity vets the quality of the apps available for download. Instead, people have to rely on reviews by fellow users and professional reviewers. And there are concerns that because there's no central vetting of apps, hackers may turn to writing Android malware: Recently, more than 50 infected apps were pulled from the Android Market.
Android is more open than iOS in other ways as well. Notably, Android is open source, which means that manufacturers and wireless providers can customize it in any way they want -- even by cluttering phones with what you might consider crapware. For example, Verizon equips the Droid X with an app called VZ Navigator, a GPS tool designed to give you turn-by-turn directions. To use VZ Navigator, you have pay $10 a month for a subscription; if you don't want to subscribe and you'd like the app gone, you're out of luck -- it can't be uninstalled.
Another problem is that manufacturers and service providers don't have to include all of the features built into Android. For example, Android 2.2 and newer versions include built-in tethering via a USB connection, as well as wireless hot spot capability. But the Droid X, for example, only supports hot spot connections and doesn't include the USB tethering feature, even though it is perfectly capable of handling it.
Unless you want to jailbreak your iPhone, there's just one place to download and install apps for iOS -- the Apple App Store. It's simple to browse and search for downloads, and it's easy to install them once you've found them.
Unlike Google's approach to Android apps, Apple has chosen to be a gatekeeper for iOS apps: Developers have to follow a variety of rules about content, development tools and family-friendliness if they want apps to be available. Apple argues that this policy ensures that users get higher-quality apps than they would get with Android. The company also contends that it keeps potentially objectionable content out of the App Store.
Apple's policy is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it may in fact ensure that users get higher quality apps that aren't likely to cause problems on their devices. On the other hand, Apple doesn't apply its rules in a consistent manner.
For example, the company has banned some apps that featured women wearing bikinis but it has allowed others that come from well-known brands, such as Sports Illustrated. And it initially banned an app featuring the cartoons of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore because the app "contains content that ridicules public figures." After enduring a firestorm of bad publicity for that decision, Apple chose to allow the app back in to the App Store. More recently, Apple banned an app that allowed users to view the leaked U.S. State Department diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks; a similar app is freely available for Android phones.
That lack of openness extends beyond the content of apps. Apple also polices the development tools that are used to build apps for iPhones. In addition, it doesn't allow Flash on iOS, so users of its devices can't view Flash-based content. And Apple has raised the hackles of many publishers with rules about subscriptions to magazines, music and other media that allow Apple to take a hefty 30% cut of subscription fees, along with other requirements that content providers consider onerous.
Whether most iOS users know or care about these limitations is up for debate; with hundreds of thousands of apps available in the App Store, they may not feel they're missing out on much. In the end, the question is whether you want the most open platform possible or whether you're willing to let Apple be your gatekeeper.
Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 falls far, far short of both Android and iOS when it comes to apps -- depending on whom you talk to, the number as of this writing was anywhere from 9,000 to 9,500. As a result, Windows Phone 7 users don't have anything close to the wide variety of options available to iOS and Android users.
There are a number of reasons why Windows Phone 7 has fewer apps. One, of course, is that it's newer than iOS and Android. But Microsoft also designed the operating system not to be app-centric. Android phones and the iPhone beckon with a plethora of engaging apps that invite you to run them; Windows Phone 7 has been designed to deliver information efficiently so you can complete the job at hand and move on to something else.
When it comes to openness, Microsoft's policy on Windows Phone 7 is closer to Apple's stance on iOS than it is to Google's approach to Android. You can download and install apps only from Microsoft's own store. It's not yet clear whether Microsoft will wield as heavy a hand in banning apps as Apple does, but there have been assertions that the software giant is already banning some apps from Windows Phone 7 Marketplace.
On the other hand, Microsoft doesn't restrict the tools that developers can use to build Windows Phone 7 apps. And the company hasn't specifically banned Flash from Windows Phone 7, even though Flash support is not yet available. Support is expected to come some time in the middle of the year.
If you want to have access to a wide variety of apps, you'll want iOS or Android. There are so many apps for each of those platforms that you'll be able to find many to do what you want, and I've found no discernible difference in the quality of apps written for iOS and Android. And if openness is what you're after, Android beats both iOS and Windows Phone 7.
Features and data integration
No surprises here: Google services such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Maps are the center of the Android universe, MobileMe and iTunes take center stage with the iOS, and Microsoft tools and services are the focus of Windows Phone 7. Beyond that, Android is the most feature-rich operating system, although iOS does have some goodies that Android lacks, such as built-in Outlook integration. Windows Phone 7 is missing some important features, such as cut and paste.
If you live in a Google-centric world, then Android is the mobile operating system for you. Out of the box, it automatically integrates and syncs with various Google services, notably Gmail, your Google contacts and Google Calendar. In fact, you typically set up a Google device by entering your Google account information, and Google does the rest.
The news isn't quite so good if you're not Google-centric. If you use the client version of Outlook, for example, there is no direct way to synchronize your calendar and contacts with an Android device -- you'll have to pay for a third-party app such as CompanionLink to do that. Like the other two mobile operating systems, however, Android syncs with Exchange. And if you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can check them all simultaneously with a universal in-box.
On the other hand, if you want to synchronize music files between an Android device and a PC, you're stuck with using Windows Media Player, which isn't the most elegant media player around.
When it comes to features, Android offers a number of capabilities that competing smartphones don't. It includes built-in voice search and voice control features, so you can do things like initiate phone calls, search the Web, compose messages and send e-mail by talking rather than tapping.
And the latest version, Android 2.3, features support for Near Field Communication (NFC), an emerging short-range wireless technology that's designed to allow for new ways of communication between smartphones and other devices and objects in the immediate vicinity -- for example, you might be able to swipe an NFC-enabled smartphone near an NFC tag on a poster to download a related app, open a Web page or launch a video.
There is a plethora of built-in widgets, which are smaller than full-blown apps and tend to live on one of the home pages; they perform targeted tasks or display information from the Web. My favorite is the power control widget, which has tappable icons that do things like put a phone into airplane mode or turn Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and automatic syncing on or off. There are many other widgets for a variety of apps, such as Google Search, YouTube, news apps, weather apps and links to Google Calendar.
Android also features tethering via Wi-Fi, USB or Bluetooth, so you can use it to share your Internet connection with other devices, such as a laptop, a tablet or another smartphone. Typically, you'll have to pay your service provider an additional fee, often $20 per month, to enable this capability.
Keep in mind, though, that just because tethering is built into the operating system, that doesn't mean that it will necessarily be available on every smartphone. Some device makers and wireless providers choose not to offer tethering features.
Clearly, Apple fans and owners of other Apple devices will be attracted to iOS because of its tight integration with a variety of Apple software products and services, such as iTunes, Mail, Apple TV and MobileMe. If you've got a Mac, there's a good chance you'll want to use an iPhone.
iOS beats Android when it comes to Outlook integration -- it can sync contacts and calendar information with Outlook 2003 and later versions. Like Android, the iPhone has a unified e-mail in-box for checking multiple mail accounts.
Apple has some goodies built into the iPhone 4 that are lacking in both Android and Windows Phone 7. Notable among them is the video-calling feature FaceTime, which uses the front-facing and back-facing cameras for video calling. You can either directly initiate a FaceTime call, or you can switch to a FaceTime call while you're talking.
The iPhone's music player, with excellent support for podcasts and audio books, is superior to Android's and Windows Phone 7's, and the eye candy of the 3D interface for flipping through albums and photographs beats the competition as well. Getting music onto and off of an iPhone is far easier than doing the same thing with an Android or Windows Phone 7 device.
Whether you love iTunes or hate it, it's simply the best way to sync music between devices -- and it's the best way to download and use music on a smartphone. The process is far easier and better on the iPhone than competing smartphones. Apple added the iTunes Home Sharing feature to iOS 4.3; it lets you access iTunes media on a Mac or PC from an iPhone on the same Wi-Fi network. And if you have an Apple TV media player, you can use the AirPlay feature to wirelessly stream photos and videos from an iPhone to a TV for big-screen viewing.
With the recent release of iOS 4.3, iPhones offer tethering (which Apple calls Personal Hotspot) via Wi-Fi, USB and Bluetooth, but only from the iPhone 4. As with Android, this capability carries an additional fee: Both Verizon and AT&T charge an extra $20 per month for tethering.
Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 has clearly been designed to be the centerpiece of a Microsoft-centric world, both for applications and for cloud-based Microsoft services. That becomes clear when you start the phone for the first time and you're asked for your Windows Live ID.
There's a version of Outlook built into the operating system, and it works and syncs as you would expect -- seamlessly. The browser, naturally, is based on Internet Explorer. But the real news is Mobile Office, which includes mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint. They're not the full-blown Windows versions, but they do the job very nicely. Neither the iPhone nor Android phones have anything comparable built into the operating system.
There's also excellent integration with Microsoft's cloud-based services, including Hotmail. The People app integrates with the cloud-based Windows Live very nicely. Windows Live, in turn, integrates nicely with Facebook, so you get Facebook feeds and information delivered to you that way.
I've also used Windows Phone 7 with the beta of Microsoft Office 365, a suite of cloud-based services including Exchange, SharePoint and more. No surprise here -- Office 365 integrates more easily and cleanly with Windows Phone 7 devices than it does with iPhones or Android devices.
But Windows Phone 7 doesn't always play nicely with services from other companies. For example, it recognizes only one Google Calendar, so if you've got multiple ones, you're out of luck. And you may also run into glitches with Google Calendar synchronization.
Windows Phone 7 is also missing some important features, notably copy and paste. (Microsoft says this will be fixed in the first update to Windows Phone 7.) This feature isn't absolutely vital for a phone; if you're mostly using it for entertainment or keeping in touch with friends, you won't need to use copy and paste that much. But it's a surprising and serious drawback, given that the platform includes Office Mobile, which is clearly designed for business.
Also missing is a universal in-box. Unlike Android and the iPhone, Windows Phone 7 can't show you all your e-mail messages from multiple services in a single location. Instead, you have to check each account individually, a decided drawback for people who want to use their smartphones as universal communications hubs.
Missing as well is any ability to tether via Wi-Fi, USB or Bluetooth.
You have to sync music to Windows Phone 7 devices using Microsoft's Zune software. Zune has its fans, but I don't count myself among them. I find setup and syncing initially confusing, although once you do find your way around it, it's serviceable.
There is no winner here -- it all depends on what operating system you like and what applications you use. Google fans will clearly want an Android phone because it offers the best integration with Google's services. Those who live and die by Microsoft will instead prefer Windows Phone 7, although they may be put off by the lack of copy and paste (which is expected to be fixed this month). As for iOS, there's no surprise here -- Mac fans will want it.
Android has been designed from the start to be customizable, so it can be tweaked more than iOS and Windows Phone 7 can. That's good and bad -- it's good for tweakers, but it also means that iOS and Windows Phone 7 can sometimes be easier to use.
If you're looking for a phone OS that's as customizable and open as possible, then it's this simple: You want an Android phone. Compared to iOS and Windows Phone 7, Android's customizability is immediately evident.
In fact, choice and customization is baked into the guts of Android phones, not just into the main interface. Android phones have four hard buttons on the face of the device itself -- Go Back, Menu, Home and Search -- so they're always available. The most important of these for customization is the Menu button -- press it when you're in any app, and you'll invariably get a host of settings for that particular app that you can tweak.
For example, if you press Menu when you're in the Gmail app, you can refresh your listing, compose an e-mail, add or edit an account, filter by label, search -- or click on More, which will take you to more choices. And Tweetdeck lets you change your font size, tweak your column settings, add/edit accounts or refresh your Twitter feed.
Android also bristles with choices when it comes to tweaking your phone's main interface. And that's just what Google has built into the phone. Given the open-source nature of Android, phone makers, service providers and developers can further customize the interface however they like.
This is illustrated by the fact that Motorola's Droid X and Droid 2 each have seven panes, while other Android phones have five. And those panes come with a variety of built-in widgets, some that ship with Android and some that Motorola created -- and you can further customize them yourself. These include a widget that displays meetings for the day, a widget that displays your latest e-mail, a Google search widget and shortcuts to a variety of apps, including Gmail, Skype, overall messaging and a backup assistant. (You can, of course, also add widgets and/or shortcuts to any of your panes from third-party apps that you install yourself.)
There are obvious upsides to this approach, but some downsides as well. Having so many settings and customization options can be confusing, particularly because your choices are not always clear, and you may not understand the effects of performing a customization or choosing a particular menu item. And you may not like the particular tweaks that your service provider has made.
To a great extent, the iPhone interface you see when you crack open the box is the interface that you get. This is not a phone designed for customization. Unlike with Android, for example, the iPhone doesn't even include a Menu button to allow you to customize the way apps work.
Still, that doesn't mean that you can't customize the iPhone. You can have up to 11 home screens with their own apps and folders -- in this category, at least, it beats both Android and Windows Phone 7.
In addition, the iOS Settings app gives you control over all of basic features, including sounds, brightness level, Wi-Fi use, how notifications are handled, etc. Although you can't dig as deep as you can with Android's settings, it's simpler to use, presented more cleanly and clearly, and uses relatively understandable language. The General settings area, for example, is a model of clarity and simplicity.
In some instances, you get control not offered by Android. For example, the Restrictions area lets you ban access to certain apps, such as Safari, YouTube and the camera; it also lets you decide whether to allow certain apps to be installed. You can also restrict content so that, for instance, a child cannot view "adult" content. Corporations can restrict their employees from viewing that type of content as well.
All this is nice, but doesn't add up to an operating system that's as customizable as Android.
Windows Phone 7
Unlike iOS, Windows Phone 7 wasn't built for a single device, and in that way it resembles Android. However, manufacturers and service providers can't dramatically alter the Windows Phone 7 interface as they can with Android.
Windows Phone 7 is the least customizable of the trio, and that's clearly by design. Microsoft has built and marketed its operating system for people who want to get their work done quickly and efficiently, and don't want to fuss with customization and settings.
Because of that, as with iOS, there's no menu button, and few customization options for individual apps or the overall interface.
For example, you can change the location of some of the tiles on the main screen by pressing them until a small pushpin appears in their upper-right corner and then moving them to where you want them to live. However, not all tiles can be moved in this way -- you can't move the Hotmail or Messaging tiles, for example. In addition, you get only two screens, not seven as with some Android devices, or 11 as with the iPhone.
As with iOS and Android, there is also a Settings app, but there aren't nearly as many settings to tweak as there are with Android, and less than iOS as well. In fact, apart from basic settings, such as changing ringtones or wallpaper, there are very few settings that you can change.
Neither iOS nor Windows Phone 7 is the phone operating system for dedicated tweakers. When it comes to customization, Android is the clear winner.
The bottom line
For its features, customization options and openness, Android has no peer. The downside is that Android can be rough around the edges, and the exact feature set and implementation you get -- not to mention which release of Android you get -- are subject to the whims and control of device manufacturers and service providers.
If you're looking for the most elegant, simplest-to-use phone with the best integration of hardware and software and with the biggest number of apps to choose from, you'll likely opt for iOS and the iPhone. But you'll give up the ability to completely customize your phone and apps, and you'll subject yourself to Apple's rules about what is allowed to run on your phone.
If Microsoft software and services are the center of your world, Windows Phone 7 is an excellent choice. But if you want to be able to choose from a wide variety of apps that do remarkable things, then Windows Phone 7 isn't the platform for you.
Carrier choice will also likely play a role in which mobile OS you select. If you want the widest range of carriers with the widest range of price points and feature mixes, then you'll want Android. With iOS and the iPhone, the only carriers to choose from are Verizon and AT&T. If you go with Windows Phone 7, you'll have more carriers to choose from than you would with iOS (Verizon is expected to introduce a Windows Phone 7 device this month), but far fewer than you would with Android.
One thing is abundantly clear after reviewing these three smartphone platforms -- we live in a golden age of smartphones, and any one of these platforms will serve you well. The fact that there are three that are this good -- and that it is so difficult to choose one over the others -- is a boon for those who love technology, because competition can be expected to improve them even more for the next generation. The next time we offer a head-to-head look at mobile platforms, many months from now, we have no doubt that these three will all be significantly better than they are today.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works. (Que, 2006).