Android has captured the lion’s share of the growing smartphone market in barely three years. iPhone is the world’s most popular (and profitable) smartphone. Blackberry desperately clings to double digit market share in many important markets, and its long-time users continue to sing its praises. Nokia, which only recently helped bring a billion mobile devices to the world has faltered badly. Now they are fully aligned with Microsoft, which appears confident in its abilities to become a major, possibly dominant player in the global smartphone wars.
Each of these platforms wants us not only to choose their device, but hopes to lock us in to their ecosystem – device, apps, digital content, services and related products. Think of Apple’s integrated ecosystem for iPhone, Mac and iPad, for example. Or Microsoft’s hopeful Windows 8 operating system crossing PCs, tablets and smartphones. But what if we could choose only the bits we like across all companies and platforms? What if we could take what is available today and build the very best smartphone? How would that work?
You have to start with the operating system. This means Apple’s iOS. It’s tightly controlled, battle tested, easily the most intuitive. Android offers more rapid development iterations, allows handset makers to build services on top of it, and provides developers greater access. Those can be positives, but in my experience, nothing beats Apple’s iOS. Microsoft is trying to do some innovative work on their Windows Phone OS, but, really, that’s still at the starting gates. Apple wins.
It’s hard to talk about smartphone operating systems without acknowledging how they are further empowered through their ecosystem. Again, Apple wins here. iOS works across iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Increasingly, Apple integrates features across iOS and Mac (and Apple TV). Apple offers the biggest, simplest and most robust platform for buying apps, music, videos. Payments are a snap. Amazon’s “&droid” ecosystem is a close second, though only in the US. Apple offers more apps, free, freemium and premium. You can be reasonably assured they work with your latest – or oldest – iOS device. Personal preferences aside, for most users, Apple’s ecosystem is best, biggest and easiest.
We use our smartphones for more and more activities. We carry them with us wherever we go. This puts a premium on design. I think the iPhone 3G and the original Blackberry Bold were the most beautiful, elegantly designed smartphones for their time. Apple has spent the past 30 years preaching the user benefits of design. That said, I will go with Nokia. Their Lumia 900/920 may be the most beautiful-functional smartphone design for the present day. Sony makes beautiful designs, and HTC tries. But for now, I think Nokia wins on design.
Usability, apps, content, design; those are all important. Another critical factor is availability. Will it work on the carrier of your choice? Will it work in your primary location? Can you buy it from as many vendors as possible? Android is tops here, without question. That said, Apple sells only its devices in its physical and online stores. No one offers more reliable customer support. That should not be overlooked.
Next comes price. Again, Android wins. Nokia make a range of devices. Apple sells iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S at a discount. But the range of devices at all price points is a clear strength of the Android ecosystem.
For many smartphone users, they keep their device less than 2 years, some even less than a year. For those of us who do not, however, updates to the software are important. Apple has this down cold. Android is a mess, and you can never be certain your device, no matter the carrier or handset maker, will get timely updates via Google. Not so with Apple. Similarly, build quality matters a great deal. These devices are not cheap, after all. This is a tough call, but I think Apple wins. Blackberry is a distant second. Nokia should be a close third but their near wholesale embrace of the relatively new Windows Phone platform makes me cautious.
Across all platforms, much of the functionality is equivalent, a matter of personal preference. Still, some things are particularly important – camera/optics, for example. In this, everyone is chasing Nokia. Many Android device makers promote their many-megapixel cameras. Apple does a great job of building software to enhance the visuals. Their app store offers great photo editing tools. Still, I think Nokia is tops in this always-important category.
New smartphone buyers seem to have fully embraced Apple’s vision: apps and a full touchscreen. The best screen, the most responsive touch controls, hands down, come from Apple. Their lead in touchscreens is, in my view, similar to Nokia’s lead in smartphone camera technology, maybe greater. But what of those who love a physical keyboard? There are a number of Android devices to choose from, and in my experience, Motorola does best here, trumping Samsung. Still, none are the equal of Blackberry.
Though these devices are really portable computers, we call them smartphones. The emphasis remains on ‘phone’. Had I written this a couple years ago, I would have handed the call quality crown to Blackberry. Now, any new device of reasonable quality will deliver adequate voice service.
We should also consider quality of services. Apple’s Messenger, for example, or FaceTime. BBM from Blackberry. Here, I think Android – thanks to Google’s leadership – wins easily. Mail, search, mapping, voice controls. Moreover, it is Android, partly thanks to Google and partly thanks to its robust handset maker ecosystem, that is quickest to embrace new technologies, like “quad core” processing – and old ones, such as NFC. This comes at a price, of course. Many functions of an Android device can be difficult to learn and equally difficult to use. There are issues with reliability and no platform has been harder hit by malware and viruses. Nonetheless, and despite those caveats, the range of services and technologies offered by Android put it well ahead of the rest.
Where does that leave us? If you could put together your own smartphone, taken from existing devices and platforms, it might look something like this:
OS/UI: Apple (iOS)
Customer support: Apple
Build quality: Apple
Call quality: Any
Location-aware services: Android
New technologies: Android (with caveats)
What about you? How would you construct your own smartphone?