What is the difference between Android and the iPhone, really? Where do Windows Phone and BlackBerry fit in? All these platforms do basically the same thing (connect a phone to the Internet and applications), but there are fundamental differences. Determining what kind of smartphone is right for you means knowing your mobile operating systems. (This is Part 5 in a 6-part series.)
Most consumers are at least somewhat familiar with the various smartphone operating systems. In the U.S., there are four primary options.
Android: Created by Google as an open platform, a variety of manufacturers have adopted Android, including Samsung, HTC, Motorola, LG, Sony and Panasonic. Its greatest strengths are a robust application ecosystem and user customization.
BlackBerry: BlackBerry devices, created by Research In Motion, are known for their physical keyboard and excellent communication features.
iOS: Apple’s operating system runs the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It's simple and easy to use, with the largest app selection.
Windows Phone: This is Microsoft’s mobile operating system. Defined by its unique interface of Hubs and Tiles, it is good for productivity and social interaction but has a smaller app selection than Android or iOS.
The BlackBerry OS is considered outdated at this point. BlackBerry OS 7 runs on the majority of RIM’s smartphones now and adds basic touchscreen capabilities to the physical keyboard. RIM is working on its next-generation operating system, known as BlackBerry 10, which should be available in early 2013. It remains to be seen whether BlackBerry 10 can close the gap separating it from the competition.
The remaining three operating systems have their advantages and drawbacks. To many people, iOS is too simple and does not allow for much customization, such as how apps appear on its home screens. Android can be overly complicated for basic users. Technologists describe Google's entry as fragmented, meaning that different versions run on different devices, and users often do not know when, or even whether, they will get the latest upgrade. Windows Phone is intuitive and easy to use, but customization is limited beyond the basic options offered by the Hubs and Tiles design.
Here is a quick breakdown of the newest versions of each:
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the newest, but most new smartphones run 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The majority of Android phones in users pockets now run an old version, 2.3 Gingerbread. For Android, Ice Scream Sandwich and Jelly Bean are much better than the older versions. Prospective buyers should aim for these.
BlackBerry 7 is the most prevalent version, but it is several years old. Users considering a BlackBerry for personal use (work is a different matter if your employer pushes a BlackBerry device on you) should wait for reviews of BlackBerry 10 before purchasing a device.
Apple just announced iOS 6, which will ship with the iPhone 5. Apple is very good at updating older iPhones to the newest version of its operating system.
Windows Phone 8 is the latest from Microsoft. The first devices will be available later this fall, including the Nokia Lumia 920. Older versions of Windows Phone (such as 7.5 Mango) will not be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8, so it is best to wait until the new devices hit the market.
Which is best? It comes down to personal preference. Go to your carrier’s retail store or your local consumer electronics emporium and play with each operating system, especially when new versions come out. That should give you an initial sense of how comfortable you would be with each one.