Phones

Mobile OS Showdown: Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows Phone 7

Hardware Options:

This may spark a call for my head on a platter from iPhone users, but hear me out. The iPhone 4 is fantastic, but it's only one phone--unless you want to count each previous incarnation. It may be perfect for you, but it's not for everybody.

Android is on nearly 100 different models of smartphones. Some have big screens, others have little ones. Some have portrait, landscape, or touchscreen displays. Heck, some have two screens. You can find one that fits your needs. Android also has the jump on 4G LTE super speeds and NFC technology, though you can expect both to be pervasive across mobile OSs by year's end.

The few Windows Phone 7 handsets available are nice and offer several options. The variety will only increase when Nokia finally releases Windows Phone 7 devices--likely by early 2012.

BlackBerry keyboards are fantastic, and they make great "one-handed" devices, but RIM is scrambling to catch up in most respects since it's been making underpowered devices with low-resolution displays for too long. A number of recent leaks indicate that RIM will launch BlackBerry units with better screens and 1.2GHz processors by the end of the year, but with dual-core Androids already popping out, RIM may remain a step behind.

Hardware Options Winner: Android takes the hardware trophy.

Voice Controls:

BlackBerry home screen in OS 6.
The somewhat revamped BlackBerry home screen in OS 6.
Any mobile OS lets you call a contact by saying, "Call John Smith, mobile." iOS offers handy controls over the music player that the others lack. Android, however, lets you say things like, "Send text to John Smith, mobile, I'm running late but I'll be there soon (period). Want to order some starters (question mark)?" and you can send that text while hardly looking at your phone. Or you can say, "Directions to In 'n' Out Burger" to trigger Google Maps directions. Android also has excellent speech-to-text in any text entry field, helping you text while walking (not that we recommend doing so).

Voice Controls Winner: The other OSs get some of this extra functionality from third-party apps like Vlingo for BlackBerry, or Dragon Dictation for iOS, but they still don't offer the core functionality that Android does.

Options for IT Admins:

It all comes down to the preference of your IT admin and your company's device-management software. Excellent software exists for managing devices on any mobile OS, so admins can remotely wipe a smartphone, scan it for malware, and customize its software. Symantec Mobile Solutions, NotifyMDM, and Zenprise Mobile Manager already offer high-level support for BlackBerry, iOS, and Android, although currently only NotifyMDM supports Windows Phone 7.

BlackBerrys have been used for business for so long that most IT departments are already set up for them, plus the platform has added levels of security and encryption. iOS offers pretty decent encryption, too. Android and Windows Phone 7 need to catch up.

Winner: BlackBerry earns the IT medallion.

Maps and Navigation:

All four operating systems have built-in mapping software that works well and integrates into the OS. Android, however, has Google Maps and turn-by-turn directions that really work. I haven't had to look at a map once with Google's built-in Navigation app. For other OSs, you can buy third-party programs, many of them paid apps, that provide the same functionality, and Windows Phone 7 Mango will offer turn-by-turn directions free with Bing Maps.

Maps Winner: Android is the victor, turn by turn.

Interface Ease of Use:

What a typical iOS home screen looks like.
What a typical iOS home screen looks like.
The iPhone was the first smartphone that didn't require a smart person to operate it. That's good, in that you'll be up and running quickly. Second place is a dead heat between Android and Windows Phone 7. Ten minutes of tinkering with either OS, and you should be well on your way. You may need the Live Tiles and "pinning" of Windows phones to be explained to you--not because they're complicated, just unique. For Android, you may need the notification pane explained to you, but then you'll love it. However, Android also has plenty of fragmentation, as it can look very different from device to device.

In last place is the BlackBerry OS. If you've ever used a BlackBerry in the past, its lack of intuitiveness won't matter because, ultimately, it hasn't changed that much. For those who are new to the brand, however, it will take some learning.

Winner: iOS wins for its simplicity, with Android just behind, and Windows Phone 7 nipping at the heels.

Interface Beauty:

Looks don't matter in the business world. Yeah, right. Even if we pretend that's true, what CEO wouldn't want the hottest-looking phone? Windows Phone 7 is sleek and sexy, with an almost-futuristic interface. iOS looks downright stodgy by comparison, Android looks disjointed, and BlackBerry just isn't exciting. The only thing that rivals Windows Phone 7 is the gorgeous third-party home replacement for Android, SPB Shell 3D--albeit that's really just your home screen. Again, though, Android's UI varies from phone to phone; the HTC Sense looks better than stock Android.

Looks Winner: Windows Phone 7 wins, hands down.

Customization:

Android at its core is open-source, so developers can get in deep, and you can customize. Don't like your keyboard? Download a different one. You can tweak the home screen with widgets, themes, and more.

iOS, on the other hand, looks mostly uniform. You can reshuffle the home screen's order of apps, add folders, and change your wallpaper, but that's about it. Apple almost prides itself on its lack of settings, so you don't have to think about them. To be fair, that's what many consumers are looking for--although it's maddening to those who crave customization.

BlackBerry's tabbed browsing in OS 6.
BlackBerry struts its tabbed browsing in OS 6.
BlackBerry has decent customization, mostly by offering themes to give your home screen a new look. Windows Phone 7's home screen is fairly customizable, too, due to Live Tiles, but they don't integrate deeply (yet).

Customization Winner: This one is a blow-out: Android all the way.

Browser:

In general, the way Web pages render on iOS is eye-pleasing, fast, and smooth. Android's native browser is a step behind in how pages are rendered, but that evens out thanks to its Flash support. Steve Jobs may not like Adobe Flash, but thousands of extremely popular Websites use it. Because of the lack of Flash support on iOS, the Web experience on Android feels much more complete.

Windows Phone 7's nice browser is speedy, smooth, and renders Web pages nicely, but it still has a lot missing--namely, Flash and HTML5. (HTML5 support is slated to arrive in the Mango update, as are some new search features in Bing.)

BlackBerry's browser took a leap forward with OS 6. It's powered by WebKit (like the iOS and Android browsers), it finally has decent JavaScript performance, it has tabbed browsing, and it knows new tricks like touchscreen pinch-to-zoom. BlackBerry also compresses Websites on its servers before they reach your phone. Unfortunately, in other respects BlackBerry remains behind iOS and Android. Unless you're using one of the few BlackBerrys with a larger touchscreen--like the Torch or the Storm 2--you feel as if you're getting half a Web experience at best. Also, there's still no Flash support.

Browser Winner: iOS and Android tie for the win in browsers. Keep an eye on Windows Phone 7 after its Mango update, though.

What's Missing:

Every OS has missing goodies and at least one Achilles heel. With so many different Android handsets, manufacturers and carriers are slow to get the latest version of the OS onto their phones. Many phones slated for release later this year are still going to ship with Android 2.2 "Froyo," even though version 2.3 "Gingerbread" has been out since December. Google recently addressed the problem, and will require manufacturers to ensure that devices get software updates for 18 months after their release.

A typical Windows Phone 7 home screen shows Live Tiles feeding in information.
A typical Windows Phone 7 home screen shows Live Tiles feeding in information.
Plus, the next major Android release, a.k.a., "Ice Cream Sandwich" will merge Honeycomb and Gingerbread. Other holes: Android needs a better media player, better integration with e-mail attachments, and a better native keyboard. (When will we see some Blind Type goodness?)

For iOS, where are the widgets? This is baffling, since Apple practically created the modern widget with its OS X dashboard. Also hurting iOS is how closed it is. Apple is notorious for booting apps out of the App Store, which translates to fewer options for consumers and less functionality. Also, I'd like to see options such as third-party keyboards or even replacement home screens. Flash support would be nice, too, as would integrated VoIP calling (which Android 2.3 supports).

For BlackBerry, the lack of quality apps is a major problem. Also, the interface is based on the old scroll-wheel OS, which makes no sense for the newer touchscreen devices. RIM will likely address these issues with its QNX-based OS (already out in the PlayBook tablet, and likely in BlackBerry 8). Also, BlackBerrys need better media handling, as well as syncing for nonenterprise users.

Windows Phone 7 is the new kid, so it's still missing bits and bolts, such as HTML5 and Flash. The biggest letdown, though, is a lack of multitasking with third-party apps. Windows Phone 7 also needs enhanced security features--ironic, since earlier Windows Mobile versions were security powerhouses. I'd also like to see options for third-party keyboards and an open file structure. Of the four OSs, Windows Phone 7 is the least complete. But it's a safe bet that Windows Phone 7 will be extremely competitive after the Mango update.

Who Wins the Title?

Which mobile operating system is the best, the undisputed winner? The answer, of course, is entirely subjective. However, because I place a high premium on customization, options, and versatility, Android is the clear champ in my ring.

That said, I owe no fealty to Google, and I've got a close eye on Windows Phone 7, which impresses with an attractive interface, speed, and a fantastic productivity suite. For users who just want something clean and simple with plenty of great apps, iOS is excellent. Workaholics will likely still lean towards BlackBerry, thanks to stellar e-mail and security.

Naturally, each OS is constantly evolving. By the end of this year we will see what's likely to be called Android 2.4, BlackBerry OS 7, iOS 5, and Windows Phone 7.1 Mango. Each is rumored to pack great improvements. BlackBerry OS 8--with no known release date--will likely be built by QNX, be faster and prettier, and may even run Android apps. That will likely help BlackBerry.

Ultimately, four companies constantly pushing each other is a big win for users, as competition drives innovation. When that innovation ends up in your pocket, I say let them keep duking it out.

Vote in the poll below to tell us your favorite...

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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