Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Best Smartphone Operating Systems: Which to Pick?

Best Wireless Cell Phones Part 5

In Part 4, we discussed what frequency band combination to pick, if at all possible, in order to pick the best cellphone. We can divide cell phones into two categories - smartphones, and others. Smartphones carry an operating system (OS). Their operating system, a complex piece of software, gives them extended capabilities, but also require more performance from the hardware, and result in higher prices. What are the primary smartphones operating systems?
image by eraserhead1
  • Symbian is the operating system for all Nokia cellphones, and represents approximately 47% of the smartphone market - a very high share. It is an open source platform, obviously heavily driven by Nokia. Symbian is an efficient operating system, with an emphasis on conserving resources, which enables smaller devices. Symbian phones can download applications from Nokia's Ovi Store, launched in mid 2009. The Ovi Store carries many high quality applications, most of which ported from the Apple App Store, but does nto have the runaway success of the Apple equivalent.
  • BlackBerry OS is the operating system for Research in Motion, the #1 provider of business phones. A powerful and highly usable OS, it focuses on email, multi-tasking, and enterprise capabilities. It requires a separate subscription to RIM's email service. The BlackBerry OS powers 21% of all smartphones.
  •  The iPhone OS, used by the Apple iPhone, needs no introduction. It powers the most runaway success in the history of wireless communications. It is focused on an excellent user interface, intuitive, easy to use. It permits the use of finger gestures against a touch screen to allow complex manipulations. It does not allow multitasking. The Apple App Store allows users to download third party applications for their iphone, and has also be incredibly successful, counting way over 100,000 applications. The Apple OS is proprietary and tightly controlled, and has a 15% share of the total smartphone market.
  • Windows Mobile is Microsoft's operating system for mobile devices, a direct inheritor of Microsoft's embedded operating system, and, as such,  has gone through 20 years of development. it carries approximately 9% of the total smartphone market.
  • Android is Google's entry into the wireless arena - although it is officially part of the Open Handset Alliance, which groups many cellphone manufacturers and wireless operators. It is derived from Linux, and is also open source. Android is now experiencing very fast growth in the number of handsets that it powers (today 5% of the all smartphones), and is also seeing significant growth in the number of applications available for download.
  • webOS is the newest proprietary OS for Palm, and is also derived from Linux. It is only available today on the Palm Pre.  
How do they compare?

Because the life cycle of a cellphone is short, the choice of an operating system is not as critical as it can be in other areas, such as computers. Yet other factors make it an important dimension: inherent capabilities, device choices, performance requirements, and applications choices - smart phone does a lot more than phone calls...

When looking at market shares in the smartphone market, the two OSs gaining significantly today are iPhone OS and Android.  A the opposite end, Palm's webOS and Microsoft Windows Mobile appear totally stalled, despite Palm's recent introduction of the Palm Pre and MS's release of the powerful Windows Mobile 7. Both Symbian and BlackBerry keep leading shares of the market but see their relative positions erode.

The iPhone is still the phenomenon in the smartphone market, presenting a fully thought out paradigm for what a smartphone should be. Its only weaknesses are its tight control by Apple, which restrict choices and may, in the future, limit some of its innovation, and the high price of its devices. Android , fastest growing of all  right now, could become the open source iPhone, if it fulfills its promises - but it is not quite there today, either in UI maturity and robustness, or in breadth of applications. The largest potential danger ahead for Android is the issue of multiplying versions, which compels developers to test against more and more versions for every release, and which Google needs to address quickly before it becomes a barrier that developers will not want to confront.

Symbian carries excellent functionality in the fundamentals of communications (calls, SMS, email) as well as good robustness and maintainability - it needs, however, to expand quickly in other areas where iPhone and Android have been making inroads, and to ensure applications breadth in the Ovi Store, a tough challenge. BlackBerry is still unchallenged as the enterprise leader, but its lead depends upon the capabilities that it gives enterprise It departments more than the functionality that it provides to end users. It has not been successful so far at matching new user functionality developments from other providers. 

Microsot has just released the excellent Windows Mobile 7, but it might not be enough to stop its precipitous decline of the last few years, and its market share is still shrinking quickly. It is simply powering very few new devices. Finally, Palm's recent introduction of its new webOS on the Palm Pre may just be too little, too late.

Smartphone OS winners and losers for a purchase decision in 2010
  • iPhone OS - winner. It is still rapidly gaining share, and offers an unprecedented access to third party applications. It is a strong technology with an excellent UI, and a big winner. The drawback of Apple's tight control is the very high cost of all of its devices, and the lack of choice out of Apple.
  •  BlackBerry - winner if you are a business user - enterprise market only. RIM is still the acknowledged leader for enterprises, where full solutions are simply missing from other providers. But its offering remains weak for non-enterprise users. The present is still good, but the future looks darker, and many of its users seem ready to switch away.
  • Android - winner with caution. It shows very strong growth and promise, but keeps large areas of immaturity in its UI, code and architecture. It is already the second largest Applications platform, gaining quickly. A conservative approach might be to look at purchasing an Android phone in one or two years.
  • Symbian - winner with caution. Nokia's dominating market share and excellence in traditional functionality cannot be ignored. A the same time, we should be aware that it is losing market share quickly to newer competitors, and that its choice of applications is very limited compared to Android and the iPhone.
  • Microsoft, Palm - losers. While, at this time, we would not rule out any cellphone purchase solely due to the OS in use, the lack of market success for Palm and Microsoft definitely downgrades their offerings, and purchasing a handset powered by either should be approached with caution.In particular, Palm could altogether go under some time in the next 6 quarters.
Come back soon to see our upcoming picks for best smartphone and best cellphone!

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