Remember when a phone was just a phone? You'd no more give thought to its operating system than you would to the one that your microwave oven ran. Boy, have times changed. Today's smart phones are pocketable, Net-connected personal computers, and the OSs they use have a huge impact on their power and their personality. Buy a phone, and you're committing to a platform just as surely as you are when you choose a PC or a Mac.
To see how today's smart phone OSs stack up, I spent time with five leading ones as experienced on phones that show them to good advantage: Apple's iPhone OS (which I tried on the iPhone 3G, using AT&T's network), Google's Android (on T-Mobile's G1), Microsoft's Windows Mobile (on HTC's Touch Diamond, using Sprint), Nokia's S60 3rd Edition on Symbian (on the company's N96, sold only in unlocked form), and RIM's BlackBerry OS (on the company's own BlackBerry Bold, using AT&T). (Consult PC World's Top 10 Smart Phones chart to see how the hardware compares.)
I judged the five operating systems on their capabilities, ease of use, and visual panache, and considered both their standard applications and third-party programs.
The two most impressive operating systems were the two with the briefest histories: iPhone OS and Android.
Both are built for Internet-centric devices, both are not only functional but fun, and both make extending your phone's capabilities with new applications extremely easy. At the moment, iPhone OS beats the newer, rougher Google OS; over time, Android's open-source design and lack of restrictions on third-party developers could give it an edge over Apple's more locked-down approach.
Among the old-timers, the BlackBerry OS is doing a solid job of preserving the strengths that made it popular in the first place while keeping up with the times. In contrast, I regret to report, Windows Mobile and S60 3rd Edition are aging badly.
Let's delve more deeply.
Apple iPhone OS
What it is: iPhone OS is a pocket-size version of the Mac's OS X, shrunk down and redesigned to power the iPhone 3G.
How it works: As you zip your way around the iPhone 3G's multitouch interface with your fingertips, hardware and software blur into one pleasing experience. With other OSs, it's all too easy to get lost in menus or forget how to accomplish simple tasks; iPhone apps, however, are remarkably sleek and consistent. The OS's most infamous omission is cut-and-paste capability--but to tell the truth, I haven't missed it yet.
How it looks: Terrific. Everything from the sophisticated typography to the smooth animation effects contributes to the richest, most attractive environment ever put on a handheld device.
Built-in applications: What's good is great--especially the Safari browser, which makes navigating around sites that were never designed to be viewed on a phone remarkably simple. And the OS's music and video programs truly are of iPod caliber. But as a productivity tool, the iPhone lacks depth: You can't search e-mail, and you get no apps for editing documents or managing a to-do list.
Third-party stuff: Just months after Apple opened up the iPhone to other developers, thousands of programs are available, and downloading them directly via the App Store is a cakewalk. The best ones, such as Facebook and the Evernote note-taker, are outstanding. But the limitations that Apple puts on third-party apps--they can't run in the background or access data other than their own--place major obstacles in the way of everything from instant messengers to office suites. And Apple, the sole distributor of iPhone software, has declined to make available some useful applications that developers have submitted.
Bottom line: iPhone OS is easily the most enjoyable and intuitive phone operating system in existence, but its growth could be stunted unless Apple keeps its control-freak tendencies in check.
Next: Google Android and RIM BlackBerry OS
What it is: Google's new phone OS is an ambitious open-source platform intended to let companies customize it to their liking for an array of handsets. So far, however, it's available on just one model, T-Mobile's G1.
How it works: On the G1, Android's interface feels like an iPhone/BlackBerry mashup--much of it uses the touch screen, but you get a trackball and Menu, Home, and Back buttons, too. The highly customizable desktop is a plus. Overall, it compares well to older platforms but isn't as effortless as the iPhone.
How it looks: Android isn't an aesthetic masterpiece like iPhone OS, but it's fresh and appealing, and it makes good use of the G1's high-resolution screen.
Built-in applications: They're tightly integrated with Google services such as Gmail and Google Calendar--the first thing you do when you turn on the phone for the first time is to give it your Google account info. (That's fine as long as you're not dependent on alternatives such as Microsoft Exchange.)
Android's browser lacks the iPhone's multitouch navigation but is otherwise a close rival. The best thing about its music features is the ability to download DRM-free songs from Amazon. The only videos it can play are YouTube clips, alas.
Third-party stuff: Developers are just beginning to hop on the Android bandwagon. The iPhone-like Market service lets you download apps directly to the phone from Google; unlike with the iPhone, you can also snag programs from third-party merchants such as Handango.
Bottom line: Android's potential is gigantic, especially if it winds up on scads of phones. On the G1, it's a promising work in progress.
RIM BlackBerry OS
How it works: The basic concepts behind the BlackBerry interface have changed remarkably little in a decade. And why should they? In its own way, the BlackBerry interface is just as logical and consistent as the iPhone's: On most models you perform almost every function in every application with a trackball, a Menu button, and a button that lets you back out to the previous screen.
Master those three actions, and you can whip around the OS with extreme speed. (I haven't tried the Storm, which replaces the standard BlackBerry controls with an iPhone-style touch screen.)
How it looks: The BlackBerry OS is fairly mundane and text-centric, although recent models such as the Bold dress it up with crisper fonts and slicker icons.
Built-in applications: The BlackBerry's e-mail and calendaring applications still set the standard for efficient design and reliable real-time connectivity with widely used messaging systems such as Microsoft Exchange.
The Bold introduces a much-improved new browser that rivals iPhone OS and Android in its ability to display sites the way their designers intended; its music and video apps are serviceable enough but still secondary to the productivity tools.
Third-party stuff: Once upon a time, users didn't have many BlackBerry programs to choose from, but recently the market has boomed--thousands, from productivity apps to games, are available now. Windows Mobile and S60 have even more bountiful selections, though.
Currently BlackBerry has no over-the-air storefront comparable to Apple's App Store or Android Market. RIM's BlackBerry storefront is expected to launch in March 2009.
Bottom line: The BlackBerry OS is an old dog, but a smart one--and one that's proving itself capable of learning new tricks.
Next: Microsoft Windows Mobile and Nokia S60 3rd Edition on Symbian
Microsoft Windows Mobile
What it is: As its name makes clear, this is Microsoft's mobile edition of Windows. Version 6.1 ships on a dozen phones from manufacturers such as HTC (with its Touch Diamond), Motorola, Palm, and Samsung.
Here's a video showing the best of the new features of Windows Mobile 6.1.
Some manufacturers--including HTC with the Diamond, Palm, and Samsung--supplement Windows Mobile with their own software layer or tweaks to the underlying Windows Mobile OS.
How it works: Surprisingly, Windows Mobile acts like full-strength Windows, complete with a Start menu and system tray. That isn't a virtue--who wants to squint at tiny icons on devices meant for on-the-go use? The Touch Diamond covers up part of Microsoft's stylus-oriented interface with a fingertip-driven system called TouchFLO that's nowhere near as elegant and intuitive as the iPhone.
How it looks: It's workmanlike. But it falls far, far short of iPhone OS's surface gloss.
Built-in applications: The version of Internet Explorer on current phones is profoundly archaic; the Touch Diamond dumps it for Opera Mobile. (Microsoft has released a new version of IE, but it isn't yet available on any phones.) On the other hand, the productivity apps--basic versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint--aren't bad.
Third-party stuff: The best thing about this OS is the sheer variety of available applications in every category. Utilities such as Lakeridge Software's WisBar Advance let you tweak the interface's look, feel, and functionality, compensating for some of its deficiencies. But you get no built-in app store à la iPhone OS and Android.
Bottom line: Windows Mobile has fallen behind the times on multiple fronts. Microsoft's next major overhaul isn't expected until late 2009 or 2010; by then, version 6.1 will be all but irrelevant.
Nokia S60 3rd Edition on Symbian
What it is: S60 3rd Edition is the version of the venerable Symbian mobile OS found in a variety of smart phones, not only from Nokia (including its new N96) but also LG and Samsung.
How it works: S60's interface dates from the days when even the smartest phones sported only a numeric keypad and a few other buttons, and it tends to make you shuffle through menus one laborious item at a time. (The BlackBerry OS does a much better job of making non-touch-screen devices fast and efficient.)
How it looks: It's pretty old-fashioned by today's standards, with blocky fonts and retro icons.
Built-in applications: The programs vary from phone to phone. The N96 I tried includes a reasonably comprehensive suite of apps, and judged purely on available features, they're respectable; the browser, for instance, has a zoom-in/zoom-out interface that's theoretically similar to the one in iPhone OS's Safari. But the clunky interface leaves them feeling less powerful than the apps on any other phone I tried for this article.
Third-party stuff: A profusion of useful S60-compatible applications is available at sites such as Handango--one of the deepest libraries for any platform, thanks to Symbian's long life span and wide usage.
Bottom line: S60 3rd Edition is stale in comparison with iPhone OS and Android, but it's also heading for retirement. The new S60 5th Edition brings the OS up-to-date with features such as touch-screen support; Nokia's 5800 XpressMusic, the first phone to use it, won't arrive in the United States until early next year.
Former PC World editor in chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.
This story, "Smartphone OS Showdown: iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian" was originally published by PCWorld .