A blurb about Phones and their Operating Systems

This might be a tiny bit off the norm for my blog but I keep getting the same questions from a lot of people. There’s a lot of confusion in the consumer market right now as the big players try and position themselves as the standard.

This confusion is not healthy for consumers. Let’s face it, those little magical pocket companions are becoming more and more a part of our lives, and I truly believe we’ve only scratched the surface. More and more your personal and professional lives will be tied and combined into these devices. Think back five years ago – did you see people in airports, lobby’s, bus terminals, traffic lights, restaurants, etc all looking down at their phones? Typing away on emails or facebook? No, they were staring off into space – a void we didn’t even really know existed. A waste of brain cycles some believe, a necessary break to allow the brain to store and process others would say. Whatever your philosophy, those days are gone.

A year ago I blogged (on another site which will forever remain nameless) about a coming device that someone would inevitably invent which would be a hybrid of the laptop and the phone. This now exists in a rather unrealized and somewhat underengineered form with the Motorola Atrix, but make no mistake. The device that will exist in your pocket for about 85% of what you need to do while mobile, then about 15% of the remaining tasks (like an Excel spreadsheet, long email, blog, or PowerPoint for instance) will be the same device, however either docked at home or docked at work with a full size monitor keyboard and mouse, depending where you are. Technologies that sync your documents (like Windows Phone 7 and the SkyDrive integration for documents and OneNote) up in the cloud aren’t a fad. This is reality. This is the future.

Let me attempt to clear the present state of that future a bit.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to SmartPhones.

Basically you have a slew of different hardware manufacturers (Nokia, Samsung, Dell, HTC, etc) that will build phones that run on varying “open platform” or “hardware agnostic” operating systems such as Google’s Android (which is free) or Windows Phone 7 (which is not free).

Then there are a number of hardware manufacturers that will ONLY build phones that run on their own operating systems (Blackberry which runs RIM or research in motion, and Apple which runs the iOS for example). They control what applications can go on the phones. They control the release cycles for patches and upgrades. Etc.

So if you woke up tomorrow and thought to yourself, “hey, I want to build phones – I have a really cool idea for a phone that might be better than anything out there” you’d have a decision to make. You could either:

-Hire a team of developers to build you a new operating system from scratch, then try and get a bunch of independent app developers out there in the world convinced that your phone was the best and to start writing apps for your phone (games, tools, etc). And convince them to build all these apps months before your phone releases so your app store isn’t lame when you launch the phone.
You would need to build an app store and figure out a way to charge people while also making sure your independent app developers have a way to either get paid for app purchases or for advertising revenue on free apps. Then you’d need to build a music store so your customers can download ringtones and music – while making the folks in Hollywood and Nashville happy by ensuring the devices comply with their outrageously obtuse “digital rights management” or DRM rules so people don’t pirate the music. This is what Apple did.

OR

-You could decide that’s too much of a hassle. All you want to do is build this new killer phone that you dreamt up, right? So, let someone else handle all that mess and buy an existing operating system for your phone. So you might go with Windows Phone 7 because they are, well… Microsoft. Or you might go with Android because they are free.

You might be thinking this is a no-brainer, go with the free operating system. The problem with this is that there is no control over what apps can go on that phone and people will download apps that just aren’t written very well and make the phone perform like garbage. Then what do you have? A customer that thinks your phone is garbage when in reality, it’s acting that way because of some app they downloaded. Also, Google has yet to put in place a very good music store like Microsoft’s Zune or like the iPhone’s app store. Also, with Google you’re talking about an Operating System that is written by a community of developers. Anyone that can write code can contribute and anyone that’s interested can download source code for the operating system – which terrifies most people. Have we had a major virus outbreak on phones yet? No. Will we? Yes, it’s just a matter of time. So some folks chose to go with Microsoft because there is better security on apps, source code, and frankly – with Microsoft you know who to call when things go wrong with the Operating System on your phone.

So the biggest question is, what is the compatibility of applications between the OS‘s? None. If you develop a game, such as Angry Birds for the iOS and then want to sell it on an Android based device, you have to re-write the program. If you want to “port it over” to Windows Phone? Sorry, you’re re-writing a lot of the code again. This is very frustrating for app developers trying to make 99 cents on a game, but unfortunately they have very tiny voices in the mix. For now, this is their lot. Pick a platform and stick with it OR resign yourself to having to re-write every game you invent three or more times. (then fix it every time Apple, Microsoft, or Android updates their OS and breaks your game)

But I digress. Here is the difference:

Apple – writes their own OS and builds their own hardware, controls what apps go on the phone (very tight regulations, heavy approval process), very controlling from a hardware perspective – they have a mentality that those are really THEIR phones, their just letting you use it and you should be damn glad they were nice enough to release them to the world instead of keeping the coolness to themselves. The iPhone is the least customizable phone on the market, not due to limitations in programming but due to the fact that Steve Jobs knows how your phone should look, feel, and sound… and dammit, quit trying to mess with it.

Blackberry – or Research in Motion (RIM) writes their own OS and builds their own hardware. They are highly popular for a couple of reasons but quickly losing traction. The Blackberry WAS for a long time the most secure phone. So IT departments across the world doled out their phones. An IT department could fully control a Blackberry remotely, restrict the websites you visited (and log them), restrict the apps you could download (which there weren’t many to begin with), wipe the phone remotely, enforce password PIN and lockout policies, etc. Lots of phones can do this now but they were the first so they took off as the standard. A lead in the race they are quickly losing. The other reason people love the Blackberry is because they have the easiest keyboard to use. I don’t know why more people don’t try to duplicate this. Touchscreen keyboards suck for guys like me with big thumbs.

Independent Manufacturers – (such as Dell, HTC, Samsung, Nokia, Motorola) have no idea who will win this battle of the operating systems. And they don’t care. They build hardware that will run on operating systems like Android, Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s older phone OS (6.5 and the like), Symbian, etc. Then they let the consumer decide. They build cool phones and then call AT&T, Verison, T-Mobile, etc and ask them if they want to carry them in their stores. That’s about it.

Google – (Android) is the newest player to the game. They are developing like mad and have quickly become the most prominent OS in the SmartPhone market due to the zero price structure. Their OS is able to run on just about any platform making it ideal for devices other than just phones. Their app store is growing to eventually rival that of Apple. They are still lacking in compatibility with popular products like Microsoft Office (mostly read-only and not-so-great formatting) security, music, and a few other misses but are rapidly trying to overcome this. Their email integration is lacking, a lot of Exchange users don’t like the way it works on the phone and the security piece makes a lot of IT departments steer away from the platform. There is also little control over what types of apps can be loaded on the device. If an app is not good enough for their version of the app store, users can simply “side-load” the app. It it wasn’t good enough for the store, there’s usually a reason. But nevertheless people have had a lot of issues with the lack of app control.

Microsoft – (Windows Phone 7) Microsoft actually invented the SmartPhone and the tablet years ago. They have been in the game the longest, but lacked the vision Apple had to make it sexy. This new version is the most promising but a lot of analysts think it might be too late. The lackluster performance against the 800lb gorilla (Apple) gave way for a third player to enter the game (Google) and they are now playing catch up. They have a superior product in every category listed above but this might be too little too late. Time will tell. Microsoft has integrated WindowsLive, SkyDrive, Xbox, Office, Zune, security features, application development control, and ease of app publishing into the new product that no other company can touch due to the fact that many of these features already existed. The competition just has too much to develop to catch up to the features Microsoft can add – but again, this is a late player to the game.

So, who is winning? Apple right? Wrong.
As of March 2011 here is the footprint:
Android – 39.5%
Symbian – 20.9% (*see note below)
iOS – 15.7%
Blackberry – 14.9%
Windows Phone 7 – 5.5%
Others – 3.5%

(*Symbian which is developed by Nokia will be all but discontinued. Nokia has decided to adopt Windows Phone 7 as their new standard to try and stay relevant in the marketplace. At present Windows Phone is projected to take second place by 2015 behind Android with a projected lead over iOS) Here are the projected 2015 standings (by computerweekly and computerworld):

2015:
Android – 45.4%
Windows Phone – 20.9%
iOS – 15.3%
Blackberry – 13.7%
Others – 4.6%
Symbian – 0.2%

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