Three's company

Features Ian McGurren Jan 14, 2013

Ian McGurren takes a look at the latest versions of the big three mobile operating systems

The end of the year is a great time for the mobile enthusiast. We get a bunch of new mobile hardware from Apple, Google and the others and major updates to the mobile operating systems that go with them. It’s like a technology Christmas. So what did 2012’s update hold for us? Well, for Apple it was the jump to iOS version 6 that gave the iThings a fist of new features, while saying goodbye to a couple. Google’s rapid progress has also seen two major updates since this time last year, putting us now at Jelly Bean 4.2. Of course, the biggest leap came from from Microsoft with its great white hope, Windows Phone 8, finally making an appearance along with a clutch of brand new, exciting, hardware to go with it.

Apple iOS 6

Arguably the update with the least impact was iOS 6. On the face of it, much like iOS 5 before it, this was more of an incremental update than Google’s Jelly Bean or Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8. Apple, of course, will tell you that there were some 200 or more new features - though in some cases, like Siri coming to the third generation iPad, these were features available elsewhere before. There’s also Facebook integration to add to iOS 5’s Twitter integration, further updates to the notification centre, more iCloud integration and major changes to iTunes, the App Store and Safari. Making a noted departure, however, were two Google-owned apps: YouTube, though this is still available separately for the iPhone/iPod Touch, and (most controversially) Google Maps.

Actually, that’s not quite right as the controversy doesn’t surround Google Maps’ departure but Apple’s replacement - more on that later.

Google Android Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean isn’t the huge leap for Android devices that Ice Cream Sandwich was from Gingerbread. However, both 4.1 and 4.2 offer some very important changes that reviews claim round out the operating system and make it at least the equal of iOS, and better in many areas. The biggest news came in the form of Google Now, a (sort of) cross between Siri and that frequent saviour of dimwitted toffs, Jeeves. Sadly, while Google Now does speak, it sadly doesn’t have the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry.

The other major aspect to Jelly Bean was the curiously named ‘Project Butter’, a part of Android that attempts to solve the ongoing sluggish UI issues by offloading it to the GPU. 4.1 also saw Chrome being pushed as the browser of choice, more voice recognition options and a further enhanced notification bar.

Jelly Bean 4.2 added even more: a slick panorama photo app that borrows from Google Street View technology, user accounts, a Swype-like keyboard, and even more changes to the notification bar, including quick access to the most used buttons.

Microsoft Windows Phone 8

This was the big one. The only operating system that killed off its predecessor - the landing party that was version 7.5 - and required brand new hardware.

Microsoft has already been widely called out on this burning of bridges but, given the plaudits that the new OS is receiving, in the long run the pain may just be worth it. At first glance it, like iOS 6 and Jelly Bean, looks barely changed. Look closer, though, and you’ll see a more customisable UI that makes better use of the available screen estate and smart tiles that offer up more immediate information, all running with no slowdown at all.

Look inside and it’s all new, from the aforementioned more powerful hardware to the OS itself. It may look nearly the same, but Windows Phone 8 has a Windows 8 kernel at its core that’s natively compatible with C and C++ and all the cross-platform opportunities that implies. There’s also support for a greater range of hardware, including multiple cores and screen resolutions, nearfield communications, multitasking, encryption, Internet Explorer 10, a kids-only profile for little fingers, and something neat called ‘Lenses’ for the camera application...

Interface race

At first glance, none of these new operating systems have changed their UI in any major way, and for the most part that’s true. The award for least changed goes, once again, to iOS. Some five years down the line hasn’t changed it much at all. In fact, since Folders the only change has been to add the mostly unseen notification centre.This latest iteration continues this by adding only Facebook and Weather to the notification centre. No shortcuts, no new additions to the lock screen, nothing, and there’s still no persistent notification at the top of the screen for mail or texts at all. Apple has gone on record about its reluctance to change core areas of iOS functionality, but in some cases this isn’t doing it any favours.

Android Jelly Bean also looks much like its forbear to the untrained eye. However, Google has made significant hidden UI changes. Indeed, the aforementioned Project Butter helps keeps it all running as smooth as... well, you can guess.

There’s also a lot more interaction with the notifications bar, allowing you to shrink, expand or swipe away individual types of notification and also add a shortcut to your most used system buttons (wi-fi on/off, for instance). Widgets are even more flexible too. You can resize them and move them around the screen and the surrounding icons will move to make way. In 4.2 a selection of them can also be used on the lock screen. Along with the Roboto font, the once toy-like Android UI is now one of the best and most businesslike.

Windows Phone’s divisive tile based layout has survived the jump to Windows Phone 8, and has even spread to other MS products like Windows 8 and the latest Xbox 360 dashboard. Here its had an upgrade and been given the full screen to play with. Each tile has a more flexible size that can be changed on the fly by press holding on it. The live tiles appear more informative too, with third party tiles able to use photographs as well as text. There are still a few bugbears, though: Windows Phone 8 has no notification bar as Microsoft ran out of time, and you are still restricted to a black or white backdrop with only a few tile colours. The lock screen and the top of the screen do show more information than iOS, at least.

Just browsing

Along with texts, emails, social apps and even occasional phone calls, a smartphone’s most-utilised app has to be its browser. Get this wrong and it’s downhill from there. The tiny version of Apple’s Safari has always been one of the highlights of iOS. When it came out with the first iPhone it blew away the clunky mobile browsers on Windows Mobile and Symbian phones with accurate rendering and pinch zoom. Safari for iOS 6 is still great, if not far removed from its original incarnation.

The growth in HTML5 video has finally put paid to the old Flash argument, and if you have a Mac or other iStuff then browser tabs will sync over iCloud like magic. Safari is good, which is lucky as it’s the only iOS browser that integrates with the OS.

When Jelly Bean first arrived with the Nexus 7 it looked like the Android browser had bitten the dust in favour of desktop favourite Chrome, but a few devices in and the original is still going strong. Not coming on much since ICS, the stock browser is a capable (if unexciting) application that handles HTML5 but, like iOS, it no longer takes care of Flash pages after Adobe ceased Flash mobile development. In practice Android’s browser is much like iOS’s with tabs, pinch to zoom, cut/paste, etc. Android does offer more flexible integration with the OS, though (‘Share to’, for example), and it doesn’t tie you down - you can use any browser you wish as if it were the system’s default option.

Internet Explorer has had a tough time, frequently more favoured by hackers than users and never the first choice of seasoned PC owners. In recent times though, Microsoft has made an effort and desktop IE is (whisper it) pretty decent. Windows Phone 8 gets IE10 out of the box, and it shares code with its desktop brother - so you get a desktop level experience on mobile that’s said to be four times as fast rendering JavaScript and twice as fast with HTML5 than Windows Phone 7.5 (it’s faster than a GSIII).
For web developers, this means desktop sites will load the same on Windows Phone 8 as Windows 8, no messing. Mobile IE10 might finally be the decent browser Windows Phone has lacked.

It’s the apps, stupid

There’s always been the perpetual argument over the applications stores for both iOS and Android, with iOS being held as the benchmark and Android always on its coat tails. With iOS 6, the App Store has had its first major change in some time, and while it still hosts more applications, the store itself isn’t quite as friendly. The App Store has taken on a new UI that seems to show more of the application you are viewing but less overall, for the first time making it seem a little squashed.

Google Play, on the other hand, has begun to reach a level of maturity. It’s easy to navigate and is the only store to have a link to videos within the app descriptions - a real boon for games that aren’t done justice by screenshots. Unfortunately there’s still the old issue of device fragmentation, with some apps only appearing on a specific OS or device. This is especially noticeable with tablet apps. Apple’s App Store separates out iPad apps and there are loads, but Android tablets are still often stuck with poorly enlarged phone apps, though this is slowly changing.

Windows Phone 8 is the unfortunate loser here, though, by virtue of it being a brand new OS. As we all know, shiny new things take a while to build up an ecosystem and, so far, the Windows Phone Marketplace is comparatively threadbare. However, the ease of conversion from Windows 8 can’t be underestimated and Microsoft’s connected world of Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, the Surface tablets and the next Xbox will mean that Windows Phone 8 will not be out on its own for long.

Very sociable

With most phone tariffs including a modicum of data, even featurephones are social animals these days. Therefore any smartphone OS worth its salt has to be more sociable than an excited dog. For for the most part, all three are. Lagging behind here is iOS. Version 6 finally integrating Facebook, albeit some time after its rivals, but if you want to share to more than just Facebook or Twitter, iOS isn’t that great. Sure you can do it with specific apps, but it’s not as good as Android or Windows Phone 8. It’s here the fabled walls of the garden become apparent.

Android is still the best OS for social animals, allowing you to share to several sites from practically any application due to the way the OS works. For instance, download Dropbox and you can send to Dropbox from most applications as easily as you would email a link. This means future apps will link in as easily too.

Windows Phone 8 follows Windows Phone7’s social integration from the ground up. Here your contact list is pretty much your people hub. You’ll get their name as well as a picture, status update and even location. You can reply or post from here to multiple networks as well. This is all fed to the live tiles too, so you don’t even need to go diving into the phone to keep abreast of your social comings and goings. It’s slick and a quite different proposition to either iOS or Android.

Game on

If you’ve played mobile games such as Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Dead Trigger, Infinity Blade or Bastion, you’ll know that the days of Angry Birds being the pinnacle of phone games is soon to pass. These are games pushing chips as (or more) powerful than those in Sony’s Vita handheld, and next year they’ll double in power again. All three platforms are more than capable of running what would be considered ‘real’ games, with big name software companies, such as EA, now producing many are cross-platform mobile versions of their big tentpole titles. Windows Phone 8 is still too new to be competing on an even playing field, but you can’t write off the gaming potential of a phone OS that comes from the makers of the Xbox console.

Unfortunately, for the real gamer, no platform has yet got the hang of external joypad input, a feature many cry out for. Imagine the potential of docking your phone so the game is transferred to your HDTV and you play it with your wireless joypad. This effectively turns your smartphone into a console in all but name. Windows Phone 8 may offer a way to do this, down the line, using the DirectX APIs; until then it’s a niche experience for only a few games.

Media hubbub

As these devices become more powerful, they are beginning to outshine a lot of traditional home technology (the average smartphone is more powerful than a Blu-ray player). Therefore, the logical question to ask here is: “can’t my phone be the centre of my home technology instead?”. With these new operating systems, the answer to this is “yes”, well almost. Apple kicked it off with Airplay, allowing media to be streamed or mirrored to a TV using an Apple TV unit - a feature iOS still has and uses for games as well as media. Android adds wireless display mirroring to 4.2, offering a similar system that allows you to share to a Miracast compatible TV. That standard isn’t everywhere yet, but we expect it to pick up soon. Alternatively, you could always use Google TV or DLNA. The latter means your Android device will be able to serve video to a DLNA compatible TV, or even one of Intel’s WiDi wireless displays.

Microsoft has an Airplay-like service called Play To, currently set up for sharing from Windows 8 to an Xbox 360. So far it’s not made an appearance on the Windows Phone 8 platform, but it’s likely to in the future. In the meantime, Windows Phone 8 is not set up for video streaming out of the box.

Make and do

The amount of media that comes from mobile devices is now outweighing that from the traditional cameras and camcorders, so a mobile OS must accommodate all manner of features to stand out. Thankfully all three here are very capable. We’ve had cameras that can take panoramic images for a while now, often with varying, disjointed, slanted success. Apple’s iOS 6 introduces a smarter panorama that can take images up to 27MP, and more importantly, making them look good is as simple as following a line and they look good.

Android builds on this and calls up Google’s Street View software for help, creating Photosphere. If you think of the old Quicktime 360° images then you’re basically there. What’s more, allow Google to do so and it’ll geotag them and collate yours and others together to add to online Maps. There’s also room to change settings on the fly by simply press holding on the screen and a circle of options pops up for you to drag your finger over to. These invariably give way to more options, all without moving your finger off of the screen. In action it’s intuitive and slick.

Windows Phone 8 takes a different and clever approach, offering virtual ‘lenses’ for the camera app that link directly into other apps. For example you can use Instagrams’s filters in real time and the image will appear straight into the application. The idea is in its infancy, but it’s intriguing all the same.

Speak up

While we’ve had voice recognition on smartphones for some time, often with varying success, it wasn’t until the release of Apple’s Siri that it caught the public’s imagination. You won’t be surprised to hear then that all three now have similar services. IOS 6 still has Siri, which incidentally is still in beta. Siri is nearly there but still suffers some quirks that prevent it being your first port of call. Checking sports scores seemed to be US centric, and an inability to distinguish Taxis from Taxes could prove costly come January.

Google Now is Android’s answer introduced with Jelly Bean 4.1. Part Siri, part spooky premonition, part Google search, it does the whole personal assistant thing to a whole new level. You can voice search, but it’ll also plan journeys for you based on where you search, or destinations in emails, local transport. It’ll remind you of your day’s plan, sports scores, reservations, etc, all through a series of cards on the Google Now screen. It’s impressive, and arguably better than Siri.

Windows Phone 8 has voice recognition based on its TellMe software and is closer to Siri than it is to Google Now. It’ll do much the same sort of actions, though here they are more based around control of the current application. For example you can search for specific songs, pause and play the player and more. Much of this is the same as what appeared in Windows Phone 7.5, though here the interaction is available to any app, not just core applications.

Lost their way

Phones are fast becoming the device of choice for navigation, especially when operating systems like Android are bundling in effective navigation software for no charge. What’s more, they’re always up to date and are more adept at pulling down data such as traffic jams and speed zones.

Previously Apple users had the comparative luxury of Google Maps, a mapping and navigation app that used, not surprisingly, Google’s Maps as its source. In an effort to move away from its rival, Apple bid farewell to Google on this, and another of its previously key bundled apps, YouTube.

Apple replaced it Google’s navigation tool with its own, Apple Maps, making much of the app’s 3D maps of New York. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the planet wasn’t looked after quite so well, with areas of the UK appearing as little more than a blur - or even ending up in the wrong place entirely (though helpfully you can search for locations of the nearest Woolworths, Our Price or Electronics Boutique, so that’s okay).

Apple has been driven to apologise for Maps and ensure users that it is working to fix it. Google, on the other hand, has a web version of its Maps available for iPhones already, and is planning an app soon. In the meantime, it’s onto the App Store you go to find an alternative (or break out the TomTom).
Combined with Google Now, Google’s mapping on Android is even better than before. Now it’ll pre-plan your route home and warn of traffic without you even asking, among other features. The navigation itself is still great, and you can now save parts of the map offline so you don’t have to worry about the map running out when you are driving in a poor signal area. Frankly this is the best mapping and navigation tool for free. What’s more, it beats down many of the paid apps too, now it has Google Now integration.

Launched along with the Lumia series of phones, Nokia Maps was heralded as one of the highlights of the Windows Phone platform (so much so, in fact, that some of the makers were pinched by Apple after its Maps debacle). On Windows Phone 8, Nokia Maps is on all makes of devices, and is still just as good. Drawing on Nokia’s years of map making for its Symbian series devices, Nokia Maps already had a solid base. The Windows Phone 8 version improves on this and adds the TellMe voice recognition for ease of use when driving, offline maps and augmented reality overlays that show restaurants, petrol stations and more. Future additions will add features such as Nokia Transport for local public transport information too.

The bottom line

Mobile operating systems in 2012 are, as you can see, in rude health. Each is able to be the centre of your digital life and each offers more interesting features than they did 12 months ago. Android’s growth into a mature and powerful OS has been universally praised, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 is regarded as being full of future potential. Though many are regarding iOS as the least forward moving, for now it’s still a great OS with the best ecosystem.

What of the other big names,though, will they challenge these three? RIM is betting all its chips on its forthcoming BB10 OS and, so far, it has impressed. Unfortunately, even if BB10 is all it promises, RIM’s shaken reputation may undermine any chances it has of success - certainly in the European markets. The other big challenger is Amazon, having released a slew of devices that to the untrained eye are great value tablets from a big name. Look closer, though, and you’ll find a heavily skinned Android OS which turns the Kindle Fires into little more than Amazon-only vending machines. If you just want browsing, reading, a few apps and a little video streaming from a tablet then for the same price as a Kindle Fire HD you can pick up a Nexus 7 which can do all that and much more.

As sure as the tides, 2013 will bring with it iOS 7, hopefully with some more drastic changes to keep it from going stale. Android owners will be able to tuck into version 5 (dubbed Key Lime Pie), and Windows Phone 8 should begin to hit its stride with its Apollo update in Q1. It could be that, in twelve months, these operating systems may already begin to look ancient.