Android has been designed from the start to be customizable, so it can be tweaked more than iOS and Windows Phone 7 can. That's good and bad -- it's good for tweakers, but it also means that iOS and Windows Phone 7 can sometimes be easier to use.
If you're looking for a phone OS that's as customizable and open as possible, then it's this simple: You want an Android phone. Compared to iOS and Windows Phone 7, Android's customizability is immediately evident.
In fact, choice and customization is baked into the guts of Android phones, not just into the main interface. Android phones have four hard buttons on the face of the device itself -- Go Back, Menu, Home and Search -- so they're always available. The most important of these for customization is the Menu button -- press it when you're in any app, and you'll invariably get a host of settings for that particular app that you can tweak.
For example, if you press Menu when you're in the Gmail app, you can refresh your listing, compose an e-mail, add or edit an account, filter by label, search -- or click on More, which will take you to more choices. And Tweetdeck lets you change your font size, tweak your column settings, add/edit accounts or refresh your Twitter feed.
Android also bristles with choices when it comes to tweaking your phone's main interface. And that's just what Google has built into the phone. Given the open-source nature of Android, phone makers, service providers and developers can further customize the interface however they like.
This is illustrated by the fact that Motorola's Droid X and Droid 2 each have seven panes, while other Android phones have five. And those panes come with a variety of built-in widgets, some that ship with Android and some that Motorola created -- and you can further customize them yourself. These include a widget that displays meetings for the day, a widget that displays your latest e-mail, a Google search widget and shortcuts to a variety of apps, including Gmail, Skype, overall messaging and a backup assistant. (You can, of course, also add widgets and/or shortcuts to any of your panes from third-party apps that you install yourself.)
There are obvious upsides to this approach, but some downsides as well. Having so many settings and customization options can be confusing, particularly because your choices are not always clear, and you may not understand the effects of performing a customization or choosing a particular menu item. And you may not like the particular tweaks that your service provider has made.
To a great extent, the iPhone interface you see when you crack open the box is the interface that you get. This is not a phone designed for customization. Unlike with Android, for example, the iPhone doesn't even include a Menu button to allow you to customize the way apps work.
Still, that doesn't mean that you can't customize the iPhone. You can have up to 11 home screens with their own apps and folders -- in this category, at least, it beats both Android and Windows Phone 7.
In addition, the iOS Settings app gives you control over all of basic features, including sounds, brightness level, Wi-Fi use, how notifications are handled, etc. Although you can't dig as deep as you can with Android's settings, it's simpler to use, presented more cleanly and clearly, and uses relatively understandable language. The General settings area, for example, is a model of clarity and simplicity.
In some instances, you get control not offered by Android. For example, the Restrictions area lets you ban access to certain apps, such as Safari, YouTube and the camera; it also lets you decide whether to allow certain apps to be installed. You can also restrict content so that, for instance, a child cannot view "adult" content. Corporations can restrict their employees from viewing that type of content as well.
All this is nice, but doesn't add up to an operating system that's as customizable as Android.
Windows Phone 7
Unlike iOS, Windows Phone 7 wasn't built for a single device, and in that way it resembles Android. However, manufacturers and service providers can't dramatically alter the Windows Phone 7 interface as they can with Android.
Windows Phone 7 is the least customizable of the trio, and that's clearly by design. Microsoft has built and marketed its operating system for people who want to get their work done quickly and efficiently, and don't want to fuss with customization and settings.
Because of that, as with iOS, there's no menu button, and few customization options for individual apps or the overall interface.
For example, you can change the location of some of the tiles on the main screen by pressing them until a small pushpin appears in their upper-right corner and then moving them to where you want them to live. However, not all tiles can be moved in this way -- you can't move the Hotmail or Messaging tiles, for example. In addition, you get only two screens, not seven as with some Android devices, or 11 as with the iPhone.
As with iOS and Android, there is also a Settings app, but there aren't nearly as many settings to tweak as there are with Android, and less than iOS as well. In fact, apart from basic settings, such as changing ringtones or wallpaper, there are very few settings that you can change.
Neither iOS nor Windows Phone 7 is the phone operating system for dedicated tweakers. When it comes to customization, Android is the clear winner.
The bottom line
For its features, customization options and openness, Android has no peer. The downside is that Android can be rough around the edges, and the exact feature set and implementation you get -- not to mention which release of Android you get -- are subject to the whims and control of device manufacturers and service providers.
If you're looking for the most elegant, simplest-to-use phone with the best integration of hardware and software and with the biggest number of apps to choose from, you'll likely opt for iOS and the iPhone. But you'll give up the ability to completely customize your phone and apps, and you'll subject yourself to Apple's rules about what is allowed to run on your phone.
If Microsoft software and services are the center of your world, Windows Phone 7 is an excellent choice. But if you want to be able to choose from a wide variety of apps that do remarkable things, then Windows Phone 7 isn't the platform for you.
Carrier choice will also likely play a role in which mobile OS you select. If you want the widest range of carriers with the widest range of price points and feature mixes, then you'll want Android. With iOS and the iPhone, the only carriers to choose from are Verizon and AT&T. If you go with Windows Phone 7, you'll have more carriers to choose from than you would with iOS (Verizon is expected to introduce a Windows Phone 7 device this month), but far fewer than you would with Android.
One thing is abundantly clear after reviewing these three smartphone platforms -- we live in a golden age of smartphones, and any one of these platforms will serve you well. The fact that there are three that are this good -- and that it is so difficult to choose one over the others -- is a boon for those who love technology, because competition can be expected to improve them even more for the next generation. The next time we offer a head-to-head look at mobile platforms, many months from now, we have no doubt that these three will all be significantly better than they are today.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works. (Que, 2006).
This story, "Duke It Out: Android vs. iOS vs. Win Pho 7" was originally published by Computerworld.