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Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you

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Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
Multiple times a day, if you look at the comments on any tech news website, or community forum, you're bound to see a flame war. Occasionally, you'll see a reasonable conversation, but more often than not. It's often one side vs another with no understanding or communication involved. It's a phenomenon that's easy to understand: few of us can afford multiple devices, so you make your choice of brand and stick with it. These brand choices are especially powerful when the devices get more expensive, so electronics see this loyalty become much more fierce than anything else; and, sometimes that loyalty will go a bit too far. New studies have found that "fanboys" actually take it as a personal insult if you critique their brands, which makes rational conversation even more difficult. There are two major ideas that make this entire phenomenon ultimately pointless. We'll tackle the first idea in this piece, and the second in the next piece, which we're aiming to have up next week.

  1. It's all opinion
  2. Quality becomes ubiquitous by the nature of competition.

It's often hard to hear, but it's true: iOS isn't better than Android or WP7 or WebOS. But, that's because no OS is better than any other, because each fits a segment of the population with certain interests, needs, and preferences. To make this easier going forward, here's a handy summary to choose the best OS for you when choosing between iOS, Android, and the field. We're going to focus mainly on iOS and Android, because they are by far the powerhouses in smartphones right now. All other platforms will be relegated at this time to "the field" because each is either on its way out (BlackBerry, Symbian), has a limited user base (bada, WP7), or is in limbo (MeeGo, WebOS).

iOS

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
If you want an OS that is simple and intuitive, but fairly thin, or you're an avid iTunes user, your choice is iOS. Despite its name, iOS is, out of all the mobile platforms, the one that feels like the least of a full operating system. Almost as though, iOS is not much more than an app launcher, especially given the limited form of multitasking that exists. Apple's design philosophy is to keep things minimalistic and keep features focused on making the apps better rather than adding features to the OS itself. To that point, iOS doesn't contain any hooks for sharing or linking between apps as Android and WP7 do, nor does it offer any sort of widget/Live Tile-like options, because Apple wants to downplay the OS of iOS and feature the apps above all else. That's not to say that iOS is completely bare-bones, but the OS itself is less feature-rich than competing platforms. This is the Apple way, of course: simple and easy to pick up and use, with as little as possible to have to worry about. However, because of the tight control by Apple, you have to move on Apple's pace and only get updates of both hardware and software once a year.

That said, because the operating system on Apple devices is so understated, the App store has the biggest and best selection of apps available on any platform. Many developers still choose to create their apps for iOS first and other platforms later. And, because of the app review policies and general perfectionist OCD legacy of Steve Jobs, the apps on iOS tend to be higher quality, and tend to have better UI, compared to Android and BlackBerry at least. The App Store advantage is even more apparent once you get to the iPad where selection of tablet apps on iOS blows away any competition. Some may point to the fact that Android has almost as many apps as iOS, and that is true as far as pure numbers from each store, but the difference is that the Android Market has a large supply of clone apps, spam, and general crapware, whereas iOS may have a lot of pointless apps, but at least you wouldn't find Perturbed Pigeons or any other ripoff like that in the App Store.

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
A big byproduct of its understated operating system, and the perfectionist OCD legacy of Steve Jobs, the iOS platform tends to iterate slowly, taking far longer than anyone would want to add features like cut/paste, or a better notification system. However, when Apple does release a new feature, it tends to be more matured than that of other platforms, especially Android. For instance, Apple may have taken a cue from Android with iOS's new notifications system, but the system seems to be more thought out and complete with more options than what you'll find in stock Android. Additionally, Google has just bumped its homegrown Voice Actions app to support 6 total languages, because Google's beta culture wants to release features faster even if they aren't fully accessible to everyone. On the other side, Apple's upcoming voice controls in iOS 5 is powered by the voice input gurus at Nuance, so it would be surprising if iOS has support for fewer than 20 languages at launch. Or, even with Google Wallet, which just launched on one variant of one device with one credit card partner. Again, assuming Apple has NFC in the new iPhone, we would expect that the mobile payment system included would be far more matured with more partners at launch, or very soon afterwards. Not to mention, if Apple releases a feature on just one new device, that's okay, because there's only one new device available. 

As far as hardware, that one new device becomes a bit of a double-edged sword with Apple. Apple tends to have great hardware design, but that design has to be good enough for everyone, because it's the only option. The only choice you'll get is in color and storage size. If you want a bigger screen, different form factor, or physical keyboard, you're out of luck. Or, if you don't want to spend $199 for the iPhone, you'll have to choose the previous generation iPhone, which may be made obsolete through a software update before your contract is out. In general, customization is frowned upon with Apple, aside from changing your background. For customization and choice, you want:

Android

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
If you like to tinker and customize, if you like to have new features regardless of if they're fully baked, or if you're deep into the Google web ecosystem, Android was made for you. To be fair, many manufacturers try to do some of the customizing for you to make the experience simpler and more coherent, but at its core, Android was made for those of us who like to play with our gadgets. HTC Sense and other UI overlays are really just an attempt to capture some customers who would normally choose the simplicity of Apple. But even then, you can customize anything you'd like from the look of the launcher to alternative keyboards, and that's where Android shines. Alternative keyboards like gesture based Swype or FlexT9 alone are a huge benefit because of the added speed of text input, but add in easy access to information through widgets, and you can really make your device whatever you want. 

Of course, you can't talk about Android without talking about its open nature. Customization is a big benefit of this style, but it also leads to a lack of control for Google. This means that even though Google releases a new OS update once a year, manufacturers don't push those updates very fast. This delay has forced Google to split the basic apps from the OS, in order to push updates faster through the Android Market. Both iOS and Android have a fair number of jailbreakers/rooters, but for different purposes. On iOS, you would jailbreak to add features to a tightly controlled platform, while on Android you root to add features, but more importantly, to know you have the newest OS at all times. 

That said, the myth about Android fragmentation is that it directly effects users, when that's not really true. At the latest check in August, 85% of Android devices were running 2.2+ and those other 15% had better be in the market for a new device, because any device stuck on 1.6-2.1 is likely at least 2 years old. Android 2.2 tends to be the highest API level that developers use for phone apps, so very few apps won't work. The only trouble with fragmentation is with developers deciding what API level to use and if that may mean any trade-offs as far as functionality. These trade-offs may mean less advanced functionality for users with new handsets, but apps will still work regardless. And, Android Ice Cream Sandwich is said to have features set to reduce fragmentation even more, but we heard that with Gingerbread. Besides, what good is an OS update made to reduce fragmentation if manufacturers never push it out to a device?

The open nature obviously also extends to the Android Market. The benefit of this is in the speed of releases, and no apps being banned due to objectionable content. Unfortunately, that also means a ton of spam, clone apps, and copyright infringing apps, as well as some malware. Overall, the selection of apps on Android phones is on par with iOS, but the quality tends to be lower (although getting better), and as we mentioned, there is still a big gap with tablet apps. 

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
As far as hardware, once again Android is rife with choice. If you prefer a smaller screen, larger screen, physical keyboard, or various amounts of internal storage, the options are there. More importantly, there are choices for every price point, whether you want to pony up for the high end, or even if you just want a free smartphone. Of course, hardware quality and OS update speed vary with manufacturers, not to mention the variation in software UI. It can be confusing when purchasing, but once you've decided, you're still in an ecosystem and can share apps or widgets with friends who may have a completely different Android experience. 

Some will complain that the Android ecosystem moves too fast, with both hardware and software, and that handsets become outdated too quickly. But, we're of the mindset that faster is always better. The competition is pushing all manufacturers to keep ahead of the pack and that competition pushes forward the entire smartphone ecosystem, not just Android. Besides, Android is still iterative, just like desktops. Sure, there may be something better out a few months after you purchase, but your 2+ year old phone probably still works just fine, assuming it has received software updates from the manufacturer. Even Apple is letting older phones stay alive with new versions of iOS, and not pushing as hard with forced obsolescence. Of course, on both platforms, some older devices may not be able to take advantage of all new features, but for the most part apps will work no matter what. The only trouble that can arise is that, as with desktops, when there is a big jump in hardware, the software may not be optimized to handle it. For example, the first dual-core Android phones hit the market in early 2011, but the Android OS won't be optimized for multiple cores until Ice Cream Sandwich, which is coming in the next couple months. Whereas, because Apple controls everything, the hardware and software are always optimized, even if the hardware only changes once a year.

The Field

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
If you're not interested in the simplified, app heavy, and pretty world of iOS; and, you're not interested in the hectic, choice riddled, Wild West of Android, there are always other choices. There are a lot of other platforms on the market, but none holds that much of a share, and those that do have higher market shares like BlackBerry and Symbian are on the decline. Nokia is putting more and more effort behind Windows Phone 7, so Symbian is dropping. And, we can't pass judgement on BlackBerry, because over the next year RIM is going to attempt one of the greatest turnarounds in history with a completely new OS in QNX. Until we see how that gambit plays out, the best we can do is give a "stay away" rating to BB unless you're forced to pick up one for your business. We also can't really include WebOS, because the entire platform is in limbo, owned by a company that doesn't want it/doesn't know how to make it work, although maybe HP's new CEO Meg Whitman has an idea how to make WebOS work. The same goes for MeeGo. With Intel putting effort into Android, and manufacturers not quick to adopt MeeGo, we'd need some big news to recommend that platform.

It's not all doom and gloom with mobile competitors though, and there are a couple options that could chip away at the big two at the top of the mountain. Both Windows Phone 7 and bada are essentially new kids on the block, both having begun life in 2010, where the iPhone first launched in 2007 and the first Android handset, the G1, launched in 2008. Microsoft has been in the mobile OS game for a long time with Windows Mobile, but WP7 is such a huge reboot, that it's essentially a completely new OS (although it does contain a lot of old code.)

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
Windows Phone 7 holds the middle ground between iOS and Android. If you want a choice of devices, some customization options, widget-like features, or you're deep into Microsoft's world of products including web services and XBox 360, WP7 is probably for you. And, with a big name like Microsoft behind it, we can't imagine the platform disappearing too soon, regardless of how slow adoption may be. 

WP7 is also unique in its Metro UI. With most smartphone platforms centered around the visual of app icons with various ways to organize them, WP7 stands out with its tile design, bold interface, and Live Tiles, which can offer much of the same functionality as widgets, but with a more minimalist style. Microsoft has also gone so far as to enforce the Metro UI overlapping panel design on 3rd party apps, which gives the entire ecosystem a very nice unified feel. Microsoft also extends that control to hardware, so even though there are multiple hardware partners, all devices have certain standard features, and updates are all pushed out to everyone. Unfortunately, this means that there isn't a lot of difference between WP7 handsets and the hardware doesn't iterate very quickly. Even now, dual-core CPUs are not common in WP7 devices, despite being the current standard for high end smartphones. And, although Microsoft is working on a version of WP7 for low-end devices, there isn't yet a lot of choice for various price points. Overall, WP7 still has some catch-up to do to reach feature parity with iOS and Android, but the newest update, Mango, adds a huge number of features. And, with rumors of big ties between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in the future, it could easily become the a serious competitor. 

Mobile Competition Part 1: What OS is best for you
The other interesting choice in mobile, at least for non-US users, is bada. bada is Samsung's platform, and it's one that's a bit tough to get a handle on. It has made big strides in Europe, especially in France, but hasn't had wide adoption, and still has yet to come to the US. Because it's a Samsung OS, it tends to have a very TouchWiz-like interface, so in many ways it looks like Android, or at least it looks like a Samsung Android device, but it only runs on a few Samsung devices, and has a curated market. Samsung has reiterated its commitment to bada, and there have even been rumors that Samsung may open-source bada to create an Android competitor. The future is still fairly uncertain for bada, but we couldn't put it in with other platforms that are in limbo, because Samsung is a big name, and a trusted manufacturer. To an extent, bada seems to be what Nokia had wanted to have with new versions of Symbian, but failed to reach, forcing the company to partner with Microsoft and Windows Phone 7. There is still work to be done to get bada on the same level as other platforms, but bada 2.0, which is due out this year, should close that gap. The Samsung Apps store is very well stocked, comparatively, with somewhere around 40,000 apps (although not all are specifically for bada), and is available in 121 countries, which is almost 4x as many as the WP7 Marketplace. 

Conclusion

Sometimes, the difference between an irrational argument and a conversation is just a matter of language specificity. Our friend Peter will often say that "bada is the best OS", but in reality, it isn't the best OS. However, it is the best OS for Peter. Many people, like our friends taco, gallito and Miz will name iOS and Apple as unreachable pinnacles of perfection. Neither the hardware nor the software is perfect, but it is perfect for them. Any number of our faithful Android fans like Sniggly, protozeloz and remixfa will defend Google to the death, but of course Android has its share of problems too. And that's the real lesson in the mobile OS competition, there is no one solution, because it all comes down to personal preference and choice. 

We here at Phone Arena are pretty happy that there is no one "best" OS, because it would make our jobs far less interesting, and it would make the tech landscape far less interesting. As much as we may argue that one OS is better, or that one OS has stolen features from another, it's all a matter of competition, and competition means that everyone gets better. The bottom line is, if you want simple, easy and without hassle, buy Apple. If you are okay with a device that has a higher learning curve, go for Android. And, if you want to be part of a platform that isn't overwhelming with choice in either apps or devices, or a platform that's on the rise, maybe WP7 or bada would be best for you. Still, the best advice is probably to decide how much you are willing to pay, and what carrier you want first, and choose your device based on what's available from there.

In the next installment, we'll discuss that competition, market share, sales, and the push and pull between manufacturers, platforms, carriers, etc. The mobile landscape is one that is evolving extremely fast these days, but it is finding common forms in that evolution. Some may claim that it's a matter of one company stealing from another, but we don't think it's that simple. We're hoping to have Part 2 on this discussion of mobile competition out next week, so definitely check back.

images via: aoisora9x and Piper Jaffray

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