Smartphone OS Smackdown: iPhone OS 3.0 vs. WebOS vs. the World

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Nokia Symbian S60 5th Edition

The Nokia N97, loaded with Symbian S60 5th Edition.
What it is: The newest version of the venerable Symbian mobile OS, with more entertainment features and a new interface that permits iPhone-like touch input, as seen on phones such as the Nokia N97.

How it works: Like an aging platform that's been updated to reflect the iPhone era. For instance, it still has applications that make you navigate with tiny scroll bars--logical enough for an OS driven by a keyboard and a stylus, but tough to accomplish with your fingertip.

How it looks: Decent enough, but icons, typography, and other interface details lack the refinement of the ones in Android, iPhone OS, and WebOS. It's serviceable, not beautiful.

The latest version of the Symbian S60 OS includes a contacts app that neatly keeps track of recent messages.
Built-in applications: Time was when Symbian had some of the most sophisticated mobile software around, and it's still impressive in some ways--such as the support for multitasking and cut-and-paste. But Symbian needs a more thorough update. For instance, its browser pales next to iPhone OS's Safari and other newer entrants, and its e-mail handles plain text only.

Third-party stuff: The Symbian OS has been around for so long that a wealth of useful software supports it, but most of these applications haven't been updated to take advantage of 5th Edition's touch-centric approach. Nokia's on-device software store, Ovi Store, launched in May, but it's not yet available in the United States, and reviews have been lackluster. Symbian software remains available from other app purveyors, such as Handango.

Bottom line: 5th Edition advances Symbian part of the way to where it needs to be to compete successfully with the young whippersnappers among mobile operating systems. But this OS requires more than a fresh coat of paint to stay relevant in 2009 and beyond.

Palm WebOS

The Palm Pre, loaded with WebOS.
What it is: The all-new Palm operating system that debuted on the much ballyhooed Palm Pre. Palm says that WebOS will appear on other phones in the future; rumor has it that AT&T will get a low-cost WebOS device called the Palm Eos this fall.

How it works: Overall, really well--it's responsive and fun. In some respects--such as in the way it uses multitouch input to let you resize Web pages and photos--it feels like the iPhone OS. But it also introduces features and concepts not found on the iPhone; most notable among these is the ability to multitask with various applications and manage them using "cards" that appear on your desktop.

How it looks: Lovely. This is the first mobile OS to compete with iPhone OS for sheer aesthetic splendor, and it appears crisp and elegant on the Pre's relatively small screen. Ultimately, I'd give iPhone OS 3.0 the edge because it's less cluttered and more consistent. But WebOS finishes a close second.

WebOS's Synergy feature lets you import tasks, calendars, contacts, and e-mail from Outlook, Facebook, and Google. If you assign a task a due date, a pop-up box will automatically notify you of the impending deadline.
Built-in applications: WebOS's standard productivity apps for e-mail, calendar, task manager, and the like are straightforward and useful. The most striking thing about them is WebOS's Synergy feature, which melds information from disparate sources. For instance, it can merge your Gmail and Facebook contacts into a unified address book, and it enables the e-mail application to indicate whether a contact is online at the moment for a chat via instant messaging. On the other hand, the Universal Search feature--which actually searches only the names of your contacts and applications, plus Web services such as Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia--doesn't live up to its lofty name. (I was expecting it to search my e-mail, calendar, and documents, too.) Though WebOS is much less media-centric than iPhone OS, its music app is surprisingly good: You can buy MP3 files from Amazon and sync directly with iTunes. But WebOS provides no mechanism for buying or renting commercial movies or TV shows for its video player.

The selection of downloadable apps at Palm's app store fro WebOS is very small now, but it should grow rapidly as the OS catches on.
Third-party stuff: Palm's store for downloadable apps launched with a mere handful of programs, including ones for Pandora's music service, LinkedIn's business network, and the Fandango movie-ticket store; since then, app availability has proceeded at a trickle, not a deluge. (Motion App's Classic app emulates the old Palm OS and lets some programs run, but not every app works, and those that do work can't hide the fact that they were written for an OS dating to the mid-1990s.)

Bottom line: WebOS boasts more fresh ideas than any new operating system since iPhone OS; and once you've used cards to leap between multiple running apps, it's hard to go back to anything less. Let's hope that WebOS helps propel Palm back to robust health--and that the company puts the OS on a range of phones aimed at different kinds of folks.

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