Smartphone operating systems

Features James Hunt Feb 4, 2013

What’s the difference between the various smartphone operating systems, and why should you care?

Choosing the operating system of your phone is, in many ways, the most important part of the buying process. Hardware will come and go, but when you’ve attached yourself to a specific software ecosystem it’s hard to make the leap to another - not when it means leaving behind the programs you’ve bought and the day-to-day knowledge you’ve built up along the way.

So how do you decide which operating system you want to throw your lot in with? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Here, we’ll investigate the main smartphone operating systems to help you understand why the OS wars are just hotting up, and which side you might want to choose.

Android (Google)
Smartphone Market Share: 72.4%
Tablet Market Share: 41.0%
Latest Release: 4.2.1 Jelly Bean, November 27th 2012

The biggest mobile operating system is, by some distance, Android. It’s not hard to see why. It was built as a manufacturer- and user-friendly alternative to Apple’s iOS, and its success in that regard has been overwhelming. In September 2012, around 75% of all smartphones sold ran some version of Android.

Google’s Android operating system has given these otherwise disparate hardware manufacturers a common weapon, strengthening their position against Apple. Android allows any company to offer a similar range of features and services to the iPad and iPhone, while consumers benefit from a more competitive hardware and software market.

Although Android makes a convincing rival to Apple, there are things that make it seem rough around the edges. As good as Google and its partners are, they have some way to go before they can rival Apple’s ability to create the simple and clean interfaces that win iOS its fans. The fact that you can skin Android means that even similar versions appear fractured - Android powers hundreds of different devices, but no two will necessarily seem alike to the end user.

The variety of versions causes further confusion. ‘Gingerbread’ Android devices are vastly different to ‘Jelly Bean’ Android devices, and the software you can run on one may not work on the other. It’s not unusual for manufacturers to offer a free update allowing users of their hardware to install the latest version, but nor is it certain that they will, and even promised updates can takes months to arrive following the release of the software.

However, what Android lacks in elegance and simplicity, it makes up for in user freedom, allowing a greater level of control over its contents and software. In addition to being free and open-source, Android operates an open development policy. This means that any developer is allowed to create and distribute software for it, or even to create their own App markets to sell Android software. Google does not restrict Apps based on their content, relying on its community to self-moderate.

This model encourages competition, but as with Windows PCs, it comes with unwanted difficulties. Not only is there a growing body of malware targeted at Android devices, but malicious software has even been found on the official Google Play store. If you have an Android smartphone or tablet, a virus-scanner is a must, whereas Apple devices have not been targeted by malware in any particularly widespread manner and thus have no need for one.

There are currently over 700,000 apps available on the Google Play store, although a relatively small number of these are tablet optimised. Still, Android’s body of software is growing faster than Apple’s. While the organisations’ official figures are currently at parity with one another, it’s probable that by now, Android has inched ahead.

Stats-wise, it’s also worth noting that when it was last reported in 2011, over 65% of all apps on the Google Play store (then called Android Market) were available free, compared with just over 35% of apps on Apple’s App Store. The numbers may have shifted since then, but it’s likely Android offers you more functionality at no extra cost than iOS does. It’s also possible to acquire a refund for Google Play software purchase within 15 minutes of the initial transaction if you change your mind - something not possible for iOS users.

Lastly, we should quickly explain the weird, dessert-based naming scheme Android operates under. Rather than using normal version numbers, releases of Android are named after desserts, in roughly alphabetical order. Why? We could speculate, but there’s no obvious answer, and Google themselves aren’t telling. Maybe they just think it’s more fun. Gingerbread is the oldest that you’re likely to find on the market, Honeycomb was the first tablet version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich was the first version to unify the two strands and make a single OS designed for tablet and smartphone use (like iOS), while Jelly Bean is the latest update.

If you’re buying a new device, we recommend you get one that runs Ice Cream Sandwich at the absolute least, although Jelly Bean is obviously ideal. The differences between each version are too numerous to list, but you can see a full list of features and changes on Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Android_version_history. If you’re planning to buy an Android phone or tablet, we recommend you check that list for features before making any decision!

iOS (Apple)
Smartphone Market Share: 13.9%
Tablet Market Share: 57.0%
Latest Release: 6.0.1, November 1st 2012

The surprising success of the iPhone (and later the iPad) had a large impact on consumer expectations, and the combination of the iOS operating system and Apple’s App Store quickly became the template for tablet PCs. This model is as integral to the success of Apple’s devices as the hardware they’re built from - possibly more so. iOS currently runs on over 70% of all tablets, and over 40% of all smartphones. Android is eating into its dominance almost monthly, but most analysts predict Apple’s overall lead will extend well into 2015, barring any major changes in its strategy and release schedule.

Based on Apple’s proprietary software, the current version - iOS 6 - is identical across all supported devices, powering the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Note, however, that deprecated hardware revisions (typically those above three years old) are restricted to older releases of iOS, which are effectively abandoned as soon as the successor is released. The iPhone 4 is the earliest device that can run this year’s iOS 6 - the first generation iPad, released in April 2010 barely two and a half years before iOS 6, is restricted to iOS 5!

Even so, Apple’s free updates mean that over 90% of all active iOS devices run the latest version. A figure far greater than any other smartphone and tablet ecosystem, and evidence of the simplicity that attracts users. Unlike Android, there’s no confusion about which version you’re getting and what its capabilities are.

One of the most common complaints about the iOS platform is Apple’s insistence on using proprietary software. Windows users may be disappointed to learn that while iPads don’t require you to own a Mac for backup and content syncing, it is difficult to get the full experience without at least installing iTunes as a device manager.

Apple’s software shop - the App Store - currently offers over 775,000 apps, some 300,000 of which are iPad-optimised. By filling its store with low-price software, Apple effectively created the template which Google Play and similar competitors follow. Unlike Android, however, apps can only be legitimately installed through the official App Store. The only way to install apps from other sources (without becoming a developer) is to jailbreak your device, which can void your warranty, violate contracts (in the case of 3G devices) and potentially exempt you from support. Not necessarily a risk worth taking.

Unlike the Google Play store, the App Store has a stringent set of rules governing the content and functionality of apps contained within it, which developers must adhere to is they hope to be included. This so-called ‘walled garden’ approach means, in theory, that users get a better experience, free from malicious, deceptive, or outright broken software. However, it also creates a barrier to entry for aspiring developers (which potentially stifles innovation) and leaves users at Apple’s mercy in terms of censorship and qualitative judgements. It's a controversial way of working, but it's Apple's way - and don't expect it to change any time soon.

Ultimately, it seems that iOS will be a victim of its own exclusivity. With Android’s software strengthening from release to release, and increasing numbers of Android units on sale every day, it’s only a matter of time before Android takes the lead. Apple’s trump card is a good one though: its users spend more money on apps, meaning that even with all other things being equal, it’s more profitable for developers to stick with Apple than Android - which is perhaps why the iPhone tends to get apps quicker than Android - if the latter gets them at all…

Windows & Windows Phone (Microsoft)
Smartphone Market Share: 2.4%
Tablet Market Share: 1.5%
Latest Release: 8.0.10211.204, October 29th 2012

Way, way down in third place is Microsoft. The big kahuna of the PC world is all but marginalised in the mobile market, despite high-profile ad campaigns and a name everyone recognises.

According to Microsoft, Windows 7 was built with tablets in mind, and it is indeed a fully touch-enabled operating system. However, the low processing power of tablets and the prominence of ARM-based chipsets over Intel CPUs meant that the most affordable devices were poorly suited to running Windows. This, in turn, limited the operating system’s prominence in the field. Although there are several Windows 7 tablets on shelves, the interest mainly comes from high-end business users, whose chief concern is retaining a familiar and compatible software environment over cost and recreational use.

Recognising that Windows 7 was not capable of truly denting the mobile market, Microsoft took the bold step of redesigning and re-engineering the interface to make it compete more strongly in this arena. The substantially altered front-end, originally called Metro, was planned from the ground up to work with a touch input just as well, if not better, than on traditional machines. It is now the front-end of all versions of Windows 8, whether on desktops, laptops, tablets or smartphones.

The attempt to create a unified look gives a clear signal that Microsoft is making a strong play for tablet and mobile marketshare, a notion that has been reinforced in recent months by the release of Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 that runs on the ARM chipsets common in most tablets - an attempt to create a high-profile alternative to iOS and Android.

At present, however, Windows tablets are still a gamble. The nascent Windows Phone Marketplace isn’t even in the same league as iOS and Android when it comes to content, with fewer than 150,000 apps available - although obviously, on devices that run a full version of Windows, you do have your pick of the entire Windows software base, which is unrivalled in scope, if not organisation.

In many ways, though, the familiarity of Windows is what works against it in markets other than the desktop PC and laptops. Although iOS and Android have been created for a modern and specialised market, Windows is effectively being reverse-engineered into a tablet OS. It may be tempting to stick with an operating system you know, but Windows 8 isn't quite that, yet. We’d advise against committing to a Windows tablet any time soon. At least until Windows 8 has properly bedded in, and Microsoft's commitment to it is cemented.

Symbian
Smartphone Market Share: 2.6%
Tablet Market Share: N/A
Latest Release: Nokia Belle Feature Pack 2 / October 2nd 2012

Symbian’s popularity has been on the wane for years, though at its height, 66% of all smartphones ran the OS. Increased competition, particularly from Android, led to manufacturers such as Motorola, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson abandoning it in favour of alternatives. Since then it's rapidly plummeted down the charts.

Although originally developed by Nokia, the company announced in 2011 that it would be transitioning its smartphones from Symbian to Windows Phone, and that Accenture would be taking over development of the OS. While Accenture will continue to support Symbian until 2016, it is not expected to recover in any meaningful sense.

The Symbian name itself is already disappearing. The current version of the OS, Nokia Belle, was announced as Symbian Belle. In a similar rebrand, Symbian’s app store and online services, Ovi, were rebranded as the Nokia Store. It still offers over 100,000 apps, but growth has (understandably) slowed considerably.

For reasons that are probably obvious this far through Symbian’s obitua… we mean, biography, the purchase of Symbian-based phones should be strongly considered. The long-term prospects for the software and its applications are weak (to put it charitably) and many analysts predict an official discontinuation before much longer. It was a giant in its day, but now it’s a dead end.

Research In Motion BlackberryOS
Smartphone Market Share: 5.3%
Tablet Market Share: < 1.5%
Latest Release: 7.1.0.794, November 28th 2012

Available only on RIM’s BlackBerry smartphones, BlackberryOS is a proprietary, closed-source operating system. Despite a famously poor couple of years, it’s still the 3rd best-selling smartphone platform after iOS and Android. The BlackBerry brand has historically been popular with business users, in part due to its support for the MIDP mail protocol, and other technologies commonly used by large companies. However, if you’re considering a BlackBerry device, take note - BlackberryOS is expected to be replaced in the first few months of this year by Blackberry 10, a QNX-based mobile operating system, which will unify RIM’s tablet and smartphone platforms. RIM’s app store, the BlackBerry App World, has in the region of 35,000 applications available for download.

Bada
Smartphone Market Share: 3.0%
Tablet Market Share: N/A
Latest Release: 2.0.5 SDK / March 15th 2012

Samsung is currently maintaining its own operating system known as Bada, a name derived from Korean pictographs meaning ‘ocean’. Introduced in 2010 as a rival to the likes of Android and iOS, Bada is available on several of Samsung’s high-end and mid-range smartphones, although the company also makes use of both Android and Windows Phone on its other devices.

Bada failed to attract significant number of developers after its initial release (the Samsung Apps store contains only 13,000 pieces of software after two years) so, to try and revive its fortunes, Samsung unveiled plans in September 2011 to go open-source in the hope that other companies would pick up the operating system. To date, there have been no takers, and Bada remains a niche platform, though the popularity of Samsung devices running it mean that as of Q3 2012, it had slightly more of the market than Windows Phone - 3%, compared to the latter’s 2.4%. mm