Showdown: lOS vs Android vs WP7 (Part 1)

4/4/2012 5:53:32 PM
Showdown: lOS vs Android vs WP7 (Part 1)

Henry Winchester, Gary Marshall, Dan Grabham and Mary Branscombe size up the big three mobile operating systems. Which one will be powering your next phone?

Just a few years ago, you could choose a phone based on the hardware features you wanted. A decent camera or music playback ability would be enough to sell certain handsets to particular customers, who were generally content with a locked-down and completely inflexible experience. After all, they didn’t really have a choice.

Now everything’s changed, and the phone’s operating system has become its major selling point. We expect smartphones to be all-singing, all-dancing machines capable of just about everything, and to a large extent they are. Competition among phone manufacturers is so fierce, they have to be on the cutting edge. The smartphone market is dominated by three operating systems: Microsoft’s Windows Phone, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Nokia’s Symbian was immensely popular, hut its user base has dropped and Nokia has moved into producing Windows Phone devices. All modern smartphone operating systems target consumers, rather than the business users who were once their sole customers.

Apple pie

Apple had already established itself as a major player in portable consumer tech with its iPod MP3 players, and the first iPhone was released in 2007. It combined a lot of then-groundbreaking technology like multitouch and slick internet access into a form factor that’s remained largely unchanged, and iOS is the only smartphone operating system limited to a single manufacturer.

Description: Apple is famed for its slick designs, and its mobile operating system is no exception. iOS is intuitive and easy to use, but lacks flexibility

Apple is famed for its slick designs, and its mobile operating system is no exception. iOS is intuitive and easy to use, but lacks flexibility

Microsoft has been in the smartphone arena for over a decade, but Windows Phone devices only hold a one per cent market share. Microsoft’s first devices were PDA-like pocket PCs, and in these devices it innovated a lot in the mobile sector with applications like Windows Messenger, Internet Explorer and Office. Microsoft’s most recent mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, was released last year.

Android began life in 2003 as a start-up company with the aim of creating a fluid, cutting-edge phone operating system. The company was bought by Google in 2005, and the first Android-powered smartphone, HTC’s Dream, was released in 2008. From here the OS went on to appear in hundreds of different smartphones, as well as tablets and c-readers.

Android is also the bestselling smart phone operating system, with over 107 million units shipping in the second quarter of 2011 Apple lags behind with a mere 20 million units shipped, but that’s still enough to make it the second largest smartphone provider in the world. Thanks to Apple’s internet-savvy approach, 59 per cent of North American mobile web access is via iOS devices.

Microsoft has the biggest battle on its hands. Despite its established name, it shipped just 1.5 million Windows Phone 7 units during the second quarter of 2011 - down 52 per cent against shipments for the same period of last year. Its latest 7.5 update, known as Mango, aims to reinvigorate the brand, but it might not be enough.

Sales data is great for establishing who is dominant in the smartphone market, but it’s the phone experience that shifts units. There are a whole range of elements to consider, from internet connectivity to 3D capabilities and the device’s overall look and feel. There are also more reticent features to consider, such as whether or not the onboard memory is expandable, or if the device is open to viruses and exploits.

Choose your apps

The biggest single area to consider is apps. Initially launched by Apple in 2008, these small programs add versatility to the device and let you do everything from zombify photos of loved ones to navigate city streets via GPS. They’re not to be underestimated, either - there are a whopping 500,000 apps on the iOS App Store, and the company is nearing its 10 billionth download.

That’s a big selling point, and a big business for those involved in making apps. Although there are more Android phones out there, the Android Market lags behind the App Store. However, with 250,000 apps and 4.5 billion downloads, it’s catching up fast - and 57 per cent of its applications are free compared to the App Store’s 28 per cent.

Windows Phone 7.5 devices only have just over 33,000 apps available to them on the Windows Phone Marketplace, which is partly due to the freshness of the platform, and also because of Microsoft’s stricter quality control. Although the Apple and Android stores may have hundreds of thousands of apps, it’s can be hard to pick from the swathes of dodgy ones. Apple in particular does its best to filter out poorer quality programs, but the virtual flotsam and jetsam remains.

The lack of quality control has a knock-on effect on the apps themselves, and means it’s very hard for new apps to establish themselves unless they have significant backing. More seriously, malware programmers can disguise their applications as real ones and access information like the phone’s IMEI number and user ID. This is exactly what happened with the DroidDream trojan, although its exploits were subsequently patched by Google.

Look, feel, features

If Apple brought anything to the smartphone market, it was a ludicrous amount of polish. The original iPhone was an incredible, award-winning piece of design, and its brushed metal and glass casing made it feel like it belonged decades in the future. Of course, all other phone manufacturers had to catch up; any Android or Microsoft-powered handset now also feels weighty and slick, although nothing quite matches the tactility of an iPhone.

But the weight and materials of a phone are only the beginning - the OS has to operate smoothly, present detailed information in a small amount of space, and look flashy without being overly complex. And it has to do all this while consuming as little memory as possible.

iOS 5 — the latest update to iPhones — brings with it a number of new features, including Android-style notifications and instant camera accessibility from the lock screen. The browser, which is increasingly important, has also been updated to include a clear reading layout for web pages, as well as tabbed browsing for multiple windows.

The heart of iOS 5 is iCloud, Apple’s free (for the first 5GB at Ieast cloud storage service. It does some genuinely useful things, including wireless backups and automatic synchronisation between your various devices, hut watch what you select — we enabled backup on an iPhone and iPad, and ended up storing so much data, Apple emailed us and suggest we start buying more space.

Description: Google has benefited and suffered as a result of making its operating system open source

Google has benefited and suffered as a result of making its operating system open source

The other big innovation is Sin, the result of millions of dollars’ worth of research. It’s a voice recognition system partnered with an artificial intelligence powerful enough to (just about) understand what you’re saying and give you instant answers. You can ask it to remind you about a friend’s birthday, or (if you live in the US) to provide directions to the nearest petrol station, or tell you how far from Earth a certain star is. Google’s Voice Search is similar, hut less advanced.

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