July 16, 2009

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What runs your phone
A smartphone operating system primer
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If you thought the desktop operating system war was heating up — what with Vista’s unpopularity and Linux’s inroads in the netbook market — you ain’t seen nothing yet. The real competition is in the smartphone space.

OSes for phones have always been fairly simple but customized affairs. Unlike personal computers, phones don’t all share compatible hardware, so manufacturers were often stuck making their own software. While some operating systems are still mostly confined to one brand of phone, they’re starting to break out of that confinement and become a major selling point when consumers consider a new purchase. Best of all, you can easily extend your phone’s functionality with easily found software applications.

• Android: Instead of a much-predicted Googlephone — a device fully developed by the Internet giant — we got a Linux-based operating system that many phones can use. It’s so versatile, it’s been ported to netbooks, full-size laptops, game consoles and other computing platforms. If you’ve seen a phone pictured with a giant analog clock as its main screen, it’s probably Android.

Available on: T-Mobile G1 and MyTouch 3G (a.k.a. the HTC Magic), HTC Hero

Applications: “Thousands of titles” at the Android Market, www.android.com/market

• BlackBerry OS: First used only by high-powered executive types, the BlackBerry has made its way down to the power consumer. The first OS focused on corporate e-mail, but now things like camera and music support are standard.

Available on: BlackBerries, duh. On pretty much any network.

Applications: “Tons of apps” at BlackBerry App World, www.blackberry.com/appworld

• iPhone OS: It browses the Web better than any other mobile OS! It supports multitouch! Version 3 finally does copy and paste! You can get it on precisely one phone at a time!

Available on: Apple’s iPhone on AT&T

Applications: “Apps for everything” at www.apple.com/iphone/appstore

• Palm webOS: Things were looking grim for Palm a few years ago. Even though they practically invented the handheld (Apple’s Newton notwithstanding), more and more of their smartphones were beginning to ship with Windows Mobile instead of their own PalmOS. When the Palm Pre launched earlier this year, though, they stepped up with a major upgrade, webOS. Like Android, it’s based on Linux and is pretty much Palm’s best chance at coming back from the brink.

Available on: Palm Pre on Sprint and probably a few more devices by year’s end

Applications: www.palm.com/us/products/phones/pre/pre-mobile-applications.html

• Symbian: Cool before smartphone OSes were cool, this one’s been around more than a decade. Nokia always owned the biggest share in this company, but Samsung, Ericsson, Panasonic and Sony Ericsson were partners until last year. Nokia purchased the whole shebang and made it into a non-profit venture, and the operating system itself is on a path to become open source soon.

Available on: Every modern Nokia and a bunch of other phones on every network

Applications: All over the Web; the Symbian Foundation really should collect a bunch at www.symbian.com

• Windows Mobile: Microsoft has a habit of being the big player on any computing block, and smartphones are no exception. It’s the most familiar to users of the desktop version of Windows — you know, just about everybody in the world.

Available on: Practically every network and phone maker

Applications: Windows Mobile Catalog at www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/catalog