Software Interface

Here’s what makes each Smartphone OS unique:

HP webOS

HP’s webOS is a Linux based operating system for Smartphones. Originally developed by Palm for its line of Smartphones, webOS is now owned by Hewlett-Packard. Unlike other Linux based operating systems (most notably Google’s Android and Nokia’s Symbian and MeeGo operating systems), HP treats webOS as a proprietary product. It is not licensed to any other phone manufacturer. This has allowed HP to tightly control both the hardware and interface that the OS supports. Currently, webOS is only used on 2 models of Smartphones (i.e. the Pixi and Prē), both of which are manufactured by Hewlett-Packard. The webOS interface is built around a touch sensitive screen with a gestural interface and a physical keyboard  (i.e. either surface mounted or slide-out). It does not support a virtual keyboard. The screen is organized around a series of “cards”. Cards can be thought of as the rough equivalent of windows on a PC desktop. Cards make it easy to jump from one open program to another.

Microsoft Windows Phone 7 OS

Phone 7 is Microsoft’s latest operating system for Smartphones. The new operating system is built around a touch sensitive screen and a gestural interface. It also supports a virtual or physical keyboard and voice commands. Following Microsoft’s standard practice, the new OS is licensed to Smartphone manufacturers for use in their phones. Microsoft tightly controls the basic look and feel of the OS so phone manufacturers can’t customize it as extensively as Google’s Android OS. The interface is roughly the same from device to device and from manufacturer to manufacturer. Microsoft’s hope is that having a familiar and consistent interface spread across many lines of Smartphones will lead to widespread customer acceptance.

Apple iPhone OS

The iPhone operating system is unique in that it’s designed to work with only one type of phone. As a consequence, Apple’s designers were able to streamline and simplify the interface. For example, it was the first phone to combine a touch sensitive screen with a gestural interface. The screen organization is very simple and consistent which makes it very easy to understand and very easy to navigate. The phone also has very few buttons. The buttons that do exist are strategically placed and easy to use. The result is a remarkably intuitive device. The iPhone OS is also unique among Smartphone operating systems in that it doesn’t support physical keyboards of any sort. The phone only uses a touch-screen keyboard and keypad. All other Smartphone OS’s are built to work with surface mounted, slide-out and virtual keyboards.

Google Android OS

Android’s most unique feature is its flexibility. It’s designed to work on a large number of phones from many different manufacturer’s. Because Android is an open source operating system, it’s easy to customize. This feature allows phone manufacturers to create a different interface for each of their phones Most phone manufacturers modify the interface so that each of their products can be differentiated from those of their competitors. That’s why Android phones don’t all look and work the same.

RIM Blackberry OS

Blackberry’s new operating system is designed to support two different types of phones. In deference to its large existing customer base, RIM has updated its “traditional” line of thumb friendly phones. It has also begun selling “new” touch screen phones with a gestural interface.

Blackberry’s “traditional” interface relies on a small, non-touch sensitive screen, a physical keyboard and several well placed navigation buttons (including a trackball) on the face of the phone. Blackberry’s “new” interface relies on a large, touch sensitive screen, a gestural interface with a virtual keyboard and touch pad, and voice commands. The touch screen version of the OS can be seen as Blackberry’s first attempt at a two handed interface. To these eyes however, the traditional interface is the most compelling and more thoughtful of the two. It certainly has one of the most unique personalities of any Smartphone on the market.

Symbian OS

The Symbian OS is an open source operating system for Smartphones that’s based on Linux. It’s used primarily in Nokia phones but it’s widely licensed by other phone manufacturers and used in their products as well. Like all other Smartphone operating systems, Symbian is built around a touch sensitive screen, a gestural interface, voice commands and both virtual and physical keyboards. Because it’s open source software and easily customized, the look and feel of its interface varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and from device to device.

MeeGo OS

MeeGo is based on the Linux operating system just like Google’s Android OS, Nokia’s Symbian OS and Palm’s new webOS. The first commercial version of the MeeGo OS has just been released to phone manufacturers. We should expect to see MeeGo powered Smartphones reach the market by mid 2011.

Here’s what all Smartphone operating systems share in common.

  • All modern Smartphone OS’ allow screens to be customized (i.e. the background theme that shows up on the start screen as well as the order or relative placement of the app icons in the grid, etc.).
  • All modern Smartphone OS’ offer robust support for digital photography (i.e. support for one or more built-in cameras, image stabilization and flash, auto focus and digital zoom)..
  • An increasing number of modern mobile OS’ (notably the iPhone and Android OS’) support digital video (i.e. video capture, video streaming and video chat). However, the same features are not yet supported by webOS and Windows Mobile.
  • With the notable exception of webOS, all Smartphone OS’ support voice commands.
  • All Smartphone OS’ provide notifications and alarms. Apple’s are displayed one at a time. Android has a notification bar that allows multiple alerts to be shown simultaneously.
  • All Smartphones come with many built-in applications. Additional applications can be downloaded and installed from an on-line store. The size of the software library offered by each on-line app store is an important product differentiator.
  • All modern Smartphone OS’ support multi-tasking (more than one application running at a time and sharing data between applications). However, Windows Mobile’s ability to multi-task is limited. For instance, it won’t let third-party apps run in the background and concurrently running apps can’t share the same screen. Users must navigate from app to app via its touch screen interface.
  • All Smartphones come with preinstalled software. The list of preinstalled applications usually include a music player, a web browser, an address book (aka contacts), a calendar, and assorted file viewers and file editors.
  • With the notable exception of Windows Mobile, all Smartphone OS’ allow users to cut, copy and paste data from one application to another.
  • Email and text messaging capabilities are built into all Smartphones.
  • All modern Smartphones support “universal search” which makes it very easy to find files and contacts across programs.
  • All Smartphones OS’ support surface mounted, slide out or virtual keyboards and numeric keypads.
  • All Smartphones can be synched up with desktop and laptop computers but they each do so with varying degrees of success.
  • Most Smartphones (most commonly iPhones & Android phones) can be used as laptop tethers.
  • All Smartphone OS’ support file sharing.
  • Most Smartphone OS’s (especially the Blackberry and Android OS) allow users to add or delete folders to the screen.
  • All modern Smartphone OS’ have gestural interfaces that are built around touch sensitive screens. However, no two gestural interfaces are the same. Just as variations exist between the Mac, Microsoft and Linux interfaces in the PC world, Smartphone interfaces are very different from one another. Consumers would be well advised to shop around and experiment with each interface to determine which one suits them best.
  • All modern Smartphones are equipped with built-in motion sensors (aka accelerometers). When motion sensing data from a phone’s accelerometer is tied to a built-in digital compass and cell tower or GPS location data, Smartphones become positionally aware. This is one of the key reasons that Smartphones seem so intuitive.