Smartphone OS smackdown: WebOS vs. the world

WebOS needs to beat -- not meet -- Apple iPhone, Google Android , Microsoft Windows Mobile, RIM BlackBerry and Symbian S60

Does the world need another smartphone operating system? Apple's iPhone OS is still booming; Google's Android is increasingly promising; and three longtime contenders--Microsoft's Windows Mobile, RIM's BlackBerry OS, and Symbian's S60--are undergoing serious renovation to keep up with the times.

All of which presents a major challenge for WebOS, the much-anticipated, much-delayed phone OS that debuts on the Palm Pre. For WebOS to have a future, it must do more than catch up with its competitors. In one or more major respects, it must be better than existing alternatives. Otherwise, Palm--the beleaguered company whose PalmPilot and Treo were handheld-computing landmarks--might just as well have built a Pre that used Android or some other already-here OS.

Having spent a bit of time with the Pre, I'm very happy that Palm chose the hard route rather than the expedient one. WebOS, which looked so promising when the company unveiled it at CES in January, delivers on most of that promise. It's an exciting platform for next-generation smartphone apps; it's a fitting heir to the groundbreaking-but-obsolete Palm OS it replaces; and it's the most polished, inventive iPhone OS rival to date. Even if you never buy a WebOS phone, you may benefit from its existence. (I suspect that other mobile OS developers will soon try to replicate some of its signature features, such as its intuitive multitasking and its deep integration with online services.)

Read on for a look at how WebOS compares with Apple's iPhone OS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Nokia's Symbian S60 5th Edition, and RIM's BlackBerry OS. I judged the five operating systems on their capabilities, ease of use, and visual panache, and I assessed both their standard applications and third-party programs.

Apple iPhone OS

What it is: iPhone OS is a pocket-size version of Mac OS X, shrunk down and redesigned to power the iPhone 3G.

How it works: As you zip around the iPhone 3G's multitouch interface with your fingertips, hardware and software blur into one pleasing experience. With other OSs, it's all too easy to get lost in menus or forget how to accomplish simple tasks; iPhone apps, however, are remarkably sleek and consistent. Version 3.0, due this summer, promises to fill in most of the holes in version 2.2 by adding cut and paste, OS-wide search, better support for landscape-mode use, and the ability for programs such as IM clients to alert you even when they're not running. (The OS will still lack true multitasking, however.)

How it looks: Terrific. Everything from the sophisticated typography to the smooth animation effects contributes to the richest, most attractive environment ever put on a handheld device.

Built-in applications: What's good is great--especially the Safari browser, which makes navigating sites that weren't designed for viewing on a phone remarkably simple. The OS's music and video programs are truly of iPod caliber, too. But as a productivity tool the iPhone lacks depth: For instance, you get no apps for editing documents or managing a to-do list.

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Third-party stuff: Thanks to Apple's hugely influential App Store, the iPhone has gone from having no third-party apps to having tens of thousands of them--many of which are free--in less than a year. The best ones, such as Facebook and the Evernote note-taker, are outstanding. But the limitations that Apple imposes on third-party apps--they can't run in the background or access data other than their own--put major obstacles in the way of everything from instant messengers to office suites. And Apple, the sole distributor of iPhone software, has declined to make available some useful applications that developers have submitted.

Bottom line: Despite the strides made by Android and WebOS, iPhone OS remains the most enjoyable and intuitive phone operating system in existence. And version 3.0 promises to add many of the advanced features it needs to prevent other competitors from racing past it.

Google Android

What it is: The Android phone OS is an ambitious open-source platform that Google invites companies to customize to their liking for an array of handsets. So far, however, it's available on just one model in the United States, the T-Mobile G1. However, another 18 Android phones are expected by year's end, and expectations for its long-term success remain high.

How it works: On the G1 and its follow-up, the G2 (due in July), Android's interface feels like an iPhone/BlackBerry mashup--much of it uses the touchscreen, but you also get a trackball and Menu, Home, and Back buttons. The highly customizable Android desktop is reminiscent of those in desktop OSs like Windows Vista and OS X Leopard. You can arrange shortcuts as you like and install widgets such as clocks and search fields. Overall, Android compares well to older platforms, though it isn't as effortless as iPhone OS.

How it looks: Android isn't an aesthetic masterpiece like iPhone OS, but it's clean and appealing, and it makes good use of the high-resolution screens on the G1 and its successor.

Built-in applications: They're tightly integrated with Google services such as Gmail and Google Calendar--and when you turn on the phone for the first time, the first thing you do is give it your Google account info (which is fine as long as you don't depend on alternatives such as Microsoft Exchange). Android's browser lacks the iPhone's multitouch navigation but is otherwise a close rival. Its best music feature is the ability to download DRM-free songs from Amazon. The only videos it can play are YouTube clips, alas.

Third-party stuff: Android hasn't taken off as an app platfom as quickly as the iPhone OS did, but its iPhone-like Market store is rapidly filling up with good stuff, including intriguing apps (such as the Glympse location-sharing service) that aren't yet available on the iPhone. As more Android phones appear, more developers are likely to get excited about writing iPhone-style apps for it.

Bottom line: Android remains a promising work in progress, but its current incarnation is less inventive and elegant than either iPhone OS or WebOS.

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Microsoft Windows Mobile

What it is: Microsoft's mobile edition of Windows, of course. Version 6.1 ships on phones from manufacturers such as HTC (with its Touch Diamond2 and Touch Pro2), Motorola, Palm, and Samsung.

How it works: Windows Mobile mimics full-strength Windows, complete with a Start menu and system tray. This isn't a virtue--who wants to squint at tiny icons on devices meant for on-the-go use? Manufacturers such as HTC and Samsung supplement Windows Mobile with their own software layer or with tweaks to the underlying Windows Mobile OS. For instance, several HTC devices cover up part of Microsoft's stylus-oriented interface with a fingertip-driven system called TouchFLO; it's nowhere near as elegant and intuitive as the iPhone interface, however.

How it looks: It's workmanlike. But it falls far, far short of iPhone OS's surface gloss.

Built-in applications: The version of Internet Explorer on current phones is so profoundly archaic that HTC provides Opera Mobile on some of its models. On the other hand, the productivity apps--basic versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint--aren't bad.

Third-party stuff: The best thing about this OS is the sheer variety of available applications in every category. Utilities such as Lakeridge Software's WisBar Advance let you tweak the interface's look, feel, and functionality, thereby compensating for some of its deficiencies. But Windows 6.1 still has no built-in application store.

Bottom line: Windows Mobile has fallen way behind the times on multiple fronts. Windows Mobile 6.5--which delivers a more modern, touch-driven interface, a better browser, and a download store--isn't expected to show up on phones until September, and in any case doesn't close the slickness gap between Windows Mobile and iPhone OS, Android, and WebOS.

Nokia Symbian S60 5th Edition

What it is: The newest version of the venerable Symbian mobile OS, with more entertainment features and a new interface that permits iPhone-like touch input, as seen on phones such as Nokia's 5800 XpressMusic (here's a look at that phone by PC World's Daniel Ionescu.)

How it works: Like an aging platform that's been updated to reflect the iPhone era. For instance, as Daniel notes in his review, the 5800 XpressMusic retains old-fashioned scrollbars that are easy enough to manipulate with a stylus, but tough to control via fingertip.

How it looks: Decent enough, but icons, typography, and other interface details lack the refinement of the ones in Android, iPhone OS, and WebOS. It's serviceable, not beautiful.

Built-in applications: Time was when Symbian had some of the most sophisticated software to be found on any mobile device, and it's still impressive in some ways--such as the support for multitasking and cut-and-paste. But Symbian needs more updating: For instance, its browser pales in comparison to iPhone OS's Safari and other newer entrants, and its e-mail handles plain text only.

Third-party stuff: The Symbian OS has been around for so long that it's supported by a wealth of useful software, but for the most part these applications haven't been updated to make use of 5th Edition's touch-centric approach. Nokia's Ovi Store on-device software store, which launched last month, is not yet available in the United States, and reviews have been lackluster. Symbian software remains available from other app purveyors, such as Handango.

Bottom line: 5th Edition gets Symbian part of the way to where it needs to be to compete successfully with the young whippersnappers among mobile operating systems. But it needs more than a fresh coat of paint to stay relevant in 2009 and beyond.

Palm WebOS

What it is: The all-new Palm operating system that debuts on the much ballyhooed Palm Pre. Palm says that WebOS will appear on other phones in the future; rumor has it that AT&T will get a low-cost WebOS device called the Palm Eos this fall.

How it works: Overall, really well--it's responsive and fun. In some respects, it feels like the iPhone OS, such as in the way it uses multitouch input to let you resize Web pages and photos. But it also introduces features and concepts not found on the iPhone--most notably the ability to multitask multiple applications and manage them using "cards" that appear on your desktop.

How it looks: Lovely--this is the first mobile OS to compete with iPhone OS for sheer aesthetic splendor, and it appears crisp and elegant on the Pre's relatively small screen. Ultimately, I'd give iPhone OS the edge because it's less cluttered and more consistent. But WebOS is a close second.

Built-in applications: WebOS's standard productivity apps for e-mail, calendar, task manager, and the like are straightforward and useful. The most striking thing about them is WebOS's Synergy feature, which melds information from disparate sources--for instance, it can merge your Gmail and Facebook contacts into a unified address book, and enables the e-mail application to indicate whether a contact is online at the moment for a chat via instant messaging. On the other hand, the Universal Search feature--which actually searches only the names of your contacts and applications, plus Web services such as Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter--doesn't live up to its lofty name. (I was expecting it to search my e-mail, calendar, and documents, too.) Though WebOS is much less media-centric than iPhone OS, its music app is surprisingly good: You can buy MP3s from Amazon and sync directly with iTunes. But WebOS provides no mechanism for buying or renting commercial movies or TV shows for its video player.

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Third-party stuff: Palm's store for downloadable apps is launching with only a handful of programs, including ones for Pandora's music service, LinkedIn's business network, and the Fandango movie-ticket store. For the sake of early Pre buyers, let's hope that a meaningful number of developers jump on the WebOS bandwagon soon. (Motion App's Classic app emulates the old Palm OS and lets some programs run, but not every app works--and those that do work can't hide the fact that they were written for an OS that dates to the mid-1990s.)

Bottom line: WebOS boasts more fresh ideas than any new operating system since iPhone OS;, and once you've used cards to leap between multiple running apps, it's hard to go back to anything less. Let's hope that WebOS helps propel Palm back to robust health--and that the company puts the OS on a range of phones aimed at different kinds of folks.

RIM BlackBerry OS

What it is: This software powers RIM's BlackBerry smart phones, including stalwarts such as the Curve, Pearl, and 8800, as well as the newer Bold and Storm models.

How it works: The basic concepts behind the BlackBerry interface have changed remarkably little in a decade. And why should they? In its own way, the BlackBerry interface is just as logical and consistent as the iPhone's: On most models you perform virtually every function in every application with a trackball, a Menu button, and a button that lets you back out to the previous screen. Master those three actions, and you can whip around the OS with extreme speed. (The Storm replaces the standard BlackBerry controls with an iPhone-style touch interface that has garnered a lukewarm critical response.)

How it looks: The BlackBerry OS is fairly mundane and text-centric, though recent models such as the Bold dress it up with crisper fonts and slicker icons.

Built-in applications: The BlackBerry's e-mail and calendaring applications still set the standard for efficient design and reliable real-time connectivity with widely used messaging systems such as Microsoft Exchange. The Bold introduces a much-improved new browser that rivals those associated with iPhone OS, Android, and WebOS in its ability to display sites as their designers intended; BlackBerry music and video apps are serviceable enough but still secondary to the productivity tools.

Third-party stuff: Once upon a time, users didn't have many BlackBerry programs to choose from, but recently the market has boomed. Thousands--from productivity apps to games--are available now. Many, but not all, are available via RIM's new App World software service. Windows Mobile and S60 have even more bountiful selections, though.

Bottom line: The BlackBerry OS is an old dog, but a smart one--and one that is proving itself capable of learning new tricks. It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming Storm 2 does a better job of bringing a touch interface to the BlackBerry experience than the first Storm did.

Former PC World editor in chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.