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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Mobile Operating Systems Compared: iOS, Android and Windows Phone

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Mobile Operating Systems Compared: iOS, Android and Windows Phone
by kenlo on 18-01-2012 18:00 - last edited on 18-01-2012 11:32

In our on-going series of articles about mobile technology, we’ve been looking at various different parts of your mobile phone and how they work together to bring you today’s smartphone experience. We’ve also been asking for your thoughts on which features you’d put in your ideal phone for giffgaff members.

So far, we’ve discussed and debated over key components of the modern smartphone such as LCD displays VS organic LED displays, GPS chips and GPS navigation, hardware and software keyboards and voice recognition. We’ve also looked at new and novel form factors such as the Samsung Galaxy Note, a hybrid smartphone-tablet device. This week we turn our attention to one of the most fiercely debated elements of a modern smartphone, the smartphone operating system. The operating system is the software which brings together all of these components and allows you to make phone calls, send text messages and use applications.

In this article, we discuss and compare the key smartphone operating systems: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. As giffgaff members, you use a diverse range of smartphones across all of the major operating system platforms. We’d like to know: Do you have a favourite operating system? Which operating system has the most relevant applications for you? Would you put iOS, Android, Windows Phone or something else on the ideal mobile phone for giffgaff members?

What is an operating system?

The operating system on your mobile phone is the very basic software which allows your phone to operate. It brings together the hardware chips and components inside your phone so they all work in conjunction with each other. The operating system provides all of the basic functionality of your smartphone: being able to make calls, send and receive text messages, browse the internet and being able to run applications. Your choice of operating system has a massive impact on the look and feel of your phone and the applications that it’s able to run.

Apple iOS: iPhone, iPad & iPod Touch

The best known operating system for mobile phones is probably Apple’s iOS operating system (previously known as iPhone OS). Developed by Apple, iOS can only be found running on Apple’s own devices such as their smartphones (iPhone family), tablets (iPad & iPad 2) and portable music players (iPod Touch). Development of iOS is dictated solely by Apple with software updates such as new features and bug fixes being delivered by Apple through iTunes.

iOS is often said to be the easiest operating system for new smartphone users to pick up. With its large market share, iOS also benefits from being the first platform that developers usually produce apps for. This means iOS devices are able to access a large variety of applications – over 500,000 are available from Apple’s “App Store”. Many of these applications cost in the region of 69p but a decent selection of free applications are available too. Once downloaded, these applications will appear as a new icon on your home screen. iOS is a purely touchscreen-based operating system (it only supports on-screen software keyboards) and includes standard applications such as a web browser, e-mail and maps. Notably, iOS has built-in parental controls.

Killer application for iOS: Owners of an iPhone 4S can take advantage of the “Siri” virtual assistant. It uses voice recognition technology to understand what you want to do.

Android: Open source alternative from Google

The primary competitor to Apple’s iOS comes in the form of Google’s Android operating system. Designed to be an “open” alternative to iOS, Google develops Android internally before releasing it to smartphone manufacturers free of charge. This has led to the Android platform being adopted by companies such as Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. These companies often take the basic Android operating system as provided by Google and add their own customisations to it before shipping it on their phones.

Popular smartphones based on Android include the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Samsung Galaxy Note, the Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0, the HTC Sensation family of smartphones and the low-cost Orange San Francisco. Android-based tablets include the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Motorola Xoom and the HTC Flyer.

With the large number of Android users out there, application developers are increasingly making their applications available on the Android platform. Over 400,000 applications are available from the Android Market with a larger proportion of free applications than on the Apple iOS platform.

Proponents of Android argue that one of its key benefits is its versatility. Android can be used on both tablets and smartphones and is also able to support devices with hardware keyboards such as the HTC ChaCha and the HTC Desire Z. Android has also been particularly popular with the developer community as it allows users to create and install their own customised versions of Android (“custom ROMs”).

Criticisms of Android sometimes include the lack of consistency between different Android devices, delays in software updates and difficulties in ease of use.

Killer application for Android: Google has created many exciting applications which are exclusive to Android. Android phones are bundled with free GPS navigation but it’s also worthwhile downloading the Google Goggles augmented reality application and the Google Translate application which includes voice recognition for speech-to-speech translation.

Windows Phone: Microsoft’s mobile operating system

Microsoft’s attempt to take on the mobile operating system market is Windows Phone. First released in 2010, Windows Phone is a fairly new operating system and hence has fewer users than iOS and Android. Many mobile phone manufacturers are now beginning to ship smartphones with Windows Phone – examples include Nokia’s Lumia range, the Samsung Omnia 7, the LG Optimus 7 and the HTC Titan.

Windows Phone has a fairly distinct look from both iOS and Android: it features Microsoft’s tile-based Metro user interface (this is also set to feature in the next version of Windows 8 for PCs). Metro does away with the icon-based layout of iOS and Android and features application interfaces which are spread across horizontally-scrolling canvases.

Integrated into Windows Phone is Xbox Live, Microsoft Office and access to 40,000+ applications from the Windows Phone Marketplace. The range of applications available for Windows Phone is substantially smaller than on both iOS and Android but this is likely to increase as Windows Phone matures as an operating system.

Killer application for Windows Phone: The integration of Xbox Live into Windows Phone is a great feature for gamers. You’re able to use your Xbox Live avatar to keep track of your high scores and see which games your friends are playing.

iPhone VS Android VS Windows Phone: Feature Comparison


Apple iOS

 Apple iOS 5


Android Logo.jpg

Windows Phone

Windows Phone.jpg





Popular Smartphones

Popular Tablets


User Interface


Icons & widgets

Tile-based (Metro UI)

Application Store

App Store

Android Market

Windows Phone Marketplace

Apps available




GPS navigation

Via applications

Yes, free GPS navigation included

Via applications

Parental controls


Via applications

Via applications

Other Operating Systems

BlackBerry OS. BlackBerry use their own proprietary operating system on their smartphones dubbed “BlackBerry OS”. Historically, BlackBerry devices such as the BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry Bold have been popular for their hardware keyboards. However, recent versions of the BlackBerry OS have also added support for touchscreens such as found in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry Torch. The BlackBerry Playbook tablet uses a separate operating system called QNX which is set to form the basis of the new “BlackBerry 10” operating system.

Symbian. Previously developed by the Symbian Foundation, the Symbian operating system was best known for being used on devices such as the Nokia N95 and the Nokia N8. Nokia have switched to using Windows Phone for their new smartphones so it is unlikely Symbian will see many future updates.

Bada. Samsung have their own proprietary operating system called “Bada” which is used on their “Samsung Wave” family of devices.

Tizen. Tizen is a new “work in progress” mobile operating system being developed jointly by Intel and Samsung. The roots of the operating system can be traced back to MeeGo which was developed jointly by Intel and Nokia before Nokia switched to Windows Phone. The first smartphones running Tizen are set to be available in 2012.

WebOS. WebOS was the operating system used in mobile devices by HP/Palm – namely in the ‘Pre’ smartphones and ‘Touchpad’ tablet. HP are no longer producing mobile devices but have promised to make the source code of WebOS available to the developer community.

Your thoughts…

One of the key differentiation points between smartphones is the operating system they run. Popular operating systems include Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone but other operating systems such as BlackBerry OS, Nokia's Symbian and Samsung’s Bada also exist.

Do you have a favourite mobile operating system? Is the user interface or the number of available applications the most important factor for you? Does the tile-based user interface of Windows Phone appeal to you or do you prefer the larger choice of applications available on iOS and Android?

If you were designing your perfect mobile phone for other giffgaff members, which operating system would you use?

Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

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