Rundown of 10 Mobile Platforms for Smartphones and Tablets (with videos)
Since the iPhone kickstarted a revolution in what users expect from a modern smartphone, and then a modern tablet, the number of operating systems for these types of devices has increased. This is an overview of all notable options, from incumbents like Android and iOS, to overhauls such as Blackberry OS 10, to newcomers like Ubuntu Phone and Sailfish OS.
This should be relevant to your interests if you are shopping for a new smartphone or a tablet since the operating system it is running plays a huge part in the overall use experience you will have with it. So, read on.
Apple’s iOS, formerly known as iPhone OS, remains a top contender. It is a descendant of OSX designed to run perfectly on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPod nano while seamlessly integrating into the larger Apple’s ecosystem built around its iCloud service for syncing user data among all Apple devices.
Apple releases a new version of iOS every year with incremental updates in between, and updates are propagated on release date across all supported devices. Apple’s updates tend to be available to devices a few generations old and up. There are no carrier constraints as updates come directly from Apple, which also means that they will be in their pristine form, no extra bloat or modifications tacked onto the system.
iOS is seen as an extremely user friendly and polished mobile platform, but with Apple retaining much of the control over the behavior of the operating systems it somewhat lacks in flexibility and customization. Rooting the device gives you some additional flexibility, but most users don’t engage in such a practice, and Apple discourages it.
iOS is characterized for a relatively static grid of icons on the home screens representing apps and folders, and a dock at the bottom for frequently accessed items. The look and feel is relatively uniform except for apps that are designed by skeuromorphic design principles, making them mimic real world objects.
Some have complained that iOS is getting a little stale as of late. While the competition is attempting to innovate, adding new features and making significant leaps forward, Apple’s recent updates typically make only incremental improvements. This may or may not change in the near future, but it does reflect Apple’s general approach, which is to make a revolutionary leap every few years, and then just tweak and polish in between. Most significant changes coming in with new versions of iOS tend to be in form of new bundled apps made by Apple, such as Apple Maps in iOS 6, and Siri in iOS 5.
For many Android is the new king of mobile operating systems, winning users with its balance of features, flexibility, and user friendliness. Unlike iOS, Android is basically open source software, and Google doesn’t retain as strict control over it as Apple does over iOS. This also means that a variety of manufacturers can use it freely on their devices, and even customize it to reflect their branding or add an unique user experience.
This flexibility has its downside, however. The biggest issue is so called “fragmentation” the effect of which is users not having consistent experiences across devices. Perhaps the biggest issue with this is not getting updates in a timely manner, if ever, for some devices. Manufacturers who don’t ship stock Android directly from Google need time to bake in their customizations to the new version, and for older devices they tend to skip this re-porting process altogether. So a lot of Android users are stuck with an outdated version of the OS on their device.
This is why if you are an Android user, and actually care about having the latest and greatest of what Google has to offer with Android, your best bet will be to stick with Google Nexus line of devices. Another downside, fairly typical for anything that offers greater amounts of control and flexibility, is that it can occasionally get a little complex to use for some users. Android 4.0 made great strides in this respect, but it is conceivable that a user with simple needs and not much hunger for tinkering might just find themselves more at home on iOS.
For your convenience, here’s a video comparing iOS6 to Android 4.2:
What most obviously characterises Windows Phone is its live tiles interface, as it is a significant departure from the popular visual approaches in iOS and Android. In some sense it combines widgets and icon grids into a new visual paradigm that’s meant to serve the purposes of both. Tiles can act as just icons, that is, launchers of apps, but they can also display real time information from the app within the tile itself, much like widgets.
With Windows Phone Microsoft is taking an approach that may be considered as a middle road between Apple and Google. Apple is completely closed, with iOS experience being fully controlled, and running only on Apple devices. Google’s Android is actually open source, with maximum flexibility and running on pretty much any manufacturer’s devices. Windows Phone, however, belongs to the neither extreme. It can’t be shipped by just any manufacturers, but you do have a choice between a few of them such as HTC, Nokia, Samsung etc. They do keep a significant amount of control over the user experience, but not total control, as some guided leeway is left to the manufacturer.
It is still predominantly a closed platform, so if you prefer maximum openness you might still like Android better, but if you want a carefully controlled and consistent user experience, but with a little more choice of devices, and something that departs from the typical user interface paradigm, you might like Windows Phone. Here is the Microsoft’s presentation of the features of Windows Phone 8:
The advent of iPhone and Android started the decline, almost demise, of RIM. Perhaps coming late to the party, however, RIM reinvented itself to the point of renaming the entire company by its only real established brand: Blackberry. Blackberry Z10 is a sleek touchscreen smartphone much like the iPhone and many Android devices, and Blackberry OS now offers a kind of user experience that users are getting accustomed to, but with a few twists of its own.
It’s not as significant of a departure from the standard as Windows Phone, but Blackberry does bring a few interesting features to the table, most notable being more efficient multitasking by putting recently used apps right on the homescreen, and the Blackberry hub (accessible by swiping up and then left) as an alternative to Android’s notification center. Its search functionality, always available at the bottom, instantly searches through apps, messages, and the web all in one place and as you type. It can also be unlocked by swiping up without the need to press any buttons.
Perhaps the bigger issue than the user interface itself is the app selection, which is bound to be smaller compared to its three big competitors. When you account for it all, what’s gonna make it hard for Blackberry to make much of a dent is the lack of a “killer app”. It is a nice platform, but does it offer enough to wean people off of iOS or Android? That’s questionable, but Blackberry may still have some time to offer something more enticing.
Bada is a mobile platform developed by Samsung, and shipped on Samsung Wave line of smartphones. It is quite similar to Android in look, feel and functionality, but with elements inspired by iOS. It is probably fair to say that Android 4.0 and later represents a better offer. Samsung has said that they will cease developing Bada, and merge Bada 2.0 with Tizen, but there sure are many Bada users still floating around.
Here’s a comparison of Bada and Android:
Spearheaded by the Linux Foundation, and supported by Samsung and Intel, Tizen aims to be another alternative to the likes of Android and iOS. It is still in relatively early stages of development, but what is seen and known so far from Samsung’s reference device that was shown on Mobile World Conference 2013 it features a rather sleek and simplistic user interface with some functional similarities to Android.
The homescreen is just an app tray, much like on iOS, and it currently doesn’t support widgets. It has a pull down notifications area which also displays a brightness setting, and a button that links directly to the rest of the settings, which can be sorted by most frequently used settings for quicker access. Long press of the home button brings up the task manager for multitasking and ending apps, much like on Android.
Notable thing about Tizen is that in addition to native apps it also supports HTML5 web apps which can still use the native layer, so it is somewhat similar to Firefox OS in that respect, but unlike Firefox OS supports both web apps and native apps.
It doesn’t have many bells and whistles, and at this stage it’s not supposed to. The aim is for it to be able to run on cheap (under $100) low powered phones which would typically struggle with a beefier OS like Android. By bringing web apps to the phone while making the OS simple and light users who can’t afford the next Galaxy Nexus or the iPhone can get many of the features of beefier smartphones for a lot less.
The whole platform is also completely open source, just like the Firefox web browser. There is an app store as a convenient place to go for web apps to run on Firefox OS, and anyone can add their app to it. Apps can, of course, be tried before they are bought or “installed”. The installation is actually just creating a launcher and caching the entire app to the phone so it can be used offline. However the whole OS auto-updates itself from the web.
Apps that are bought once can work on any device it supports since what you actually bought is just a web app that can run on any web browser that supports HTML5.
Firefox OS phones may then be an excellent choice for those who don’t want to pay through the nose for their next phone, but still want to have many of the features we are becoming accustomed to on modern smartphones. It is also for those who are enthused about the idea of breaking out of walled gardens that are the iOS and Android ecosystems since any web app can automatically be a first class citizen on Firefox OS.
Mozilla is also working with WebGL to bring advanced 3D graphics to the web, running in just the browser, which would pave the way for beefy 3D games running on future Firefox OS phones as well.
Those who want to get their hands on a Firefox OS device can sign up for a mailing list on GeeksPhone.com.
Another potentially disruptive new entry is Canonical’s Ubuntu Phone, a mobile variant of Ubuntu Linux for the desktop. There are two crucial characteristics that make Ubuntu Phone stand out from the competition, and which might give it a chance on the market.
First is the seamless integration with the rest of the Ubuntu ecosystem through the Ubuntu One cloud service, and the possibility of docking the phone to turn it into a full blown desktop OS.
The second one is an unique UI design that takes advantage of all four of the screen’s edges and allows maximum screen real estate for the content. It has an already recognizable attractive lock screen, or rather a “welcome screen” as Mark Shuttleworth calls it, with notifications and a nice visualization which is supposed to somehow represent who you are based on your phone’s usage.
Swiping from the left edge of the screen, even straight from the lock screen, reveals the favourite apps launcher that resembles the one on Ubuntu for the desktop. The bottom icon on the launcher goes to the homescreen which displays most frequently used apps, last calls, recently added music etc. With a smart search box at the top it is possible to search for all apps, movies, music, books, and so on. Swiping to the left reveals more pages with recently used content. An apps page displays all installed apps, but also apps that are available for download (much like the dash in the desktop variant of Ubuntu). It can also be accessed from anywhere with a full left-to-right edge swipe so new apps can be launched instantly from anywhere.
The top edge contains the top bar, much like the one on Android, but swiping from each of the icons allows the functionality represented by that icon to be configured on the spot. This makes the top edge quite multi-functional. The left side of the top bar also always contains the search box, which offers the same search functionality as the one on the homescreen.
A swipe from the right edge is used to go back to the previously used application. The bottom edge reveals the app specific menu, which is otherwise hidden to make space for app content. In addition to the bottom controls Ubuntu Phone also offers voice control functionality as a way to access additional advanced features that may be available to the app. This is similar to the Ubuntu HUD feature on the desktop, which allows simply typing up a function to get to it instead of digging for it through traditional menus.
Ubuntu Phone also supports both native apps and web apps, which are made into “first class citizens”. This feature already exists on desktop Ubuntu since recently, which allows web applications to integrate with the system and run as if they were native applications. In this respect Ubuntu Phone resembles Tizen which also supports both native and web apps, and is unlike Firefox OS, which only supports web apps.
All of this makes for a pretty compelling offering. It sounds like a near perfect seamless all-in-one experience that provides the full power of a PC through an easy to use smartphone interface. We will see how it fares in the wild once Ubuntu Phone is officially released in fall of 2013, but in the midst of growing adoption of Ubuntu on the desktop with major PC manufacturers as partners, Canonical has built up enough clout to give this a serious push that it deserves.
Here’s Mark Shuttleworth’s (CEO of Canonical) sleek pitch for Ubuntu Phone. Skip to 5:11 for the actual Ubuntu Phone presentation, and enjoy as he almost bests Steve Jobs in his style and usage of superlatives!
Jolla Sailfish OS
Among the stranger newcomers to this scene is Jolla’s Sailfish OS. Jolla is based in Finland and consistent in large part of ex-Nokia employees. They are trying to be different, as evident from their “Unlike” slogan so one would expect Sailfish OS to indeed by unlike other platforms, and in some ways it is.
Sailfish OS has a more or less standard lock screen with some shortcuts, but there are actually three screens that can be vertically scrolled between so it feels like the lockscreen is actually not a lockscreen, just a page that is displayed by default before you swipe up to reveal the homescreen and the grid of applications. The homescreen displays currently running apps, scrollable vertically, as kind of live cards that support gestures for limited control of the functions of the running app. For instance, you don’t have to be in a music app to switch to the next song or press pause. This makes it a bit easier to multitask since it puts running apps front and center.
Sailfish OS doesn’t have a typical top bar like most other platforms. Instead information that would otherwise be present in the top bar is available by a vertical peak at the top, which then reveals the status bar. Full notifications center is available with a swipe from the right.
One of the most memorable things about Sailfish OS are its pulley menus. Instead of having a buttons menu opening up at a press of a menu button (or a swipe from the bottom on Ubuntu) Sailfish OS offers menus which you can pull from the top and, continuing the gesture, select between available options. This means that with a single touch and gesture you can complete a particular task in the app.
Sailfish OS UI looks and feels rather “glassy”, that is, there is lots of transparency and the entire interface is colored according to the currently selected wallpaper. This is called ambiance, and is algorithmically generated from the dominant colors of the selected image, which can be anything. So in some sense picking a wallpaper isn’t just picking an image that lies beneath all the activity, but selecting the entire ambiance (or theme) of the phone visible from any native app.
Finally, Sailfish OS will support all Android apps in their current form through a sandbox, which might appeal to those who like Sailfish OS, but would miss all of the apps available for Android. If this works well it could significantly help Sailfish OS’ chances of adoption in the market. However, Android apps won’t have full access to all of the Sailfish features, such as the pulley menus, and it is questionable how well they will run in a sandboxed environment.
In addition to Android apps Sailfish OS, of course, supports native apps built for it, and HTML5 web apps as well. Here’s a video showing Sailfish OS in action:
In some respects WebOS is dead as a serious mobile platform after HP acquired Palm, released HP Pre 3, and then HP TouchPad, and then promptly killed it. There are people who are using old webOS powered phones from Palm and HP, and users who bought HP Touchpad at a firesale, but there is no word of new webOS smartphones and tablets as of now.
However it is worth a mention since it had a lot to offer with its very sleek and intuitive design, web technologies based apps architecture, and innovative cards interface that might still be the best way to multitask on a phone.
Recent acquisition of webOS by LG may offer a little hope for its future, but as of now LG only plans to use it on Smart TVs. The following is a video showing HP Pre 3 smartphone and its great webOS user interface.
While iOS and Android, with Windows Phone coming in as a solid third, seem unassailable as leading mobile platforms there are clearly plenty of players who believe they should have a shot. Needless to say this can only be good for consumers and market at large, especially considering that most of these new platforms offer something at least a little bit different, and at most something potentially revolutionary.
The biggest threat to diversity, as usual, is the consolidation around closed ecosystems whereas people get used to and locked in to a certain ecosystem making it hard to switch to something else. However, I think this is less pronounced in the mobile world today, and this emergence of support for web apps as first class citizens on a mobile OS demonstrates this quite well. Google itself has, after all, pushed the whole idea of using web applications as if native applications on their Chromebooks, creating a kind of precedent to the same development on smartphones and tablets. And this erases the lines between closed ecosystems.
In any case this shows that the industry is evolving, and that there is still room for innovation in the area of mobile platforms and user interfaces. The future is gonna be interesting.
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