What flavor is your smartphone OS?

Image: iPhone, BlackBerry and BlackJack II
From left, Apple's iPhone, which uses the Mac operating system; Research In Motion's BlackBerry, which has its own operating system; and the Samsung BlackJack II, which uses the Windows Mobile OS.iPhone, BlackBerry and BlackJack II

When you buy a new computer, you may first think about its operating system — is it PC, Mac, Linux? Smartphones have those same operating systems and others. But the OS isn’t likely to be the No. 1 issue for many consumers even though it’s playing an increasingly important role.

Smartphones — which can handle e-mail, Web browsing as well as audio and video in many cases — have seen strong growth this year as more consumers opt to have their cell phones do double and triple duty.

Research In Motion’s line of BlackBerrys, Apple’s iPhone, Palm’s Treos and Centros, Samsung’s BlackJack and Motorola’s Q are all smartphones that have different operating systems, and are essentially, mini-computers.

“For many people, it doesn’t matter what OS they buy,” said Kevin Burden, ABI Research’s mobile devices research director. “In a lot of ways it comes down to the hardware. Do you like the way the phone works? Do you like the way it feels in your hands? Do you like what the phone says about you and your personality?”

The wireless carrier — be it Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile — is usually the first decision for consumers, followed by the device itself, and the operating system “never,” said Avi Greengart, Current Analysis’ research director for mobile devices.

“There definitely are people who are well aware of a specific operating system, but even then it’s often subsumed by a brand — the iPhone, for example,” he said. “I’ve never had someone come to me and say, “I just bought a phone with OS X on it!’ ”

Touchscreen aspect
But operating systems can make a difference, especially with touchscreen smartphones, which are growing in popularity.

Apple’s iPhone, launched in 2007, and Google’s Android phone, available since fall, have operating systems designed to work fluidly with capacitive touchscreens, which don’t rely on a stylus or a physical keyboard for input, said Burden.

Windows Mobile, in contrast, “was never designed to be navigated with your fingers,” he said, although Microsoft is working to modernize its mobile operating system. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Symbian, which is mainly on Nokia’s phones, is the most successful smartphone operating system worldwide, with nearly 50 percent of the market at the end of the third quarter this year, according to a recent report by Gartner, Inc.

“Nokia sells more smartphones than RIM and Apple combined; they just don’t sell that many in the United States,” said Greengart.

RIM’s operating system was second in market share, with 15.9 percent; Mac’s OS X third, with 12.9 percent; Windows Mobile had 11.1 percent; Linux represented 7.2 percent; and Palm had a 2.1 percent share. Gartner designated another 1 percent of the market as “others,” which also includes sales of the popular Sidekick, which uses the Danger platform.

Linux is an open-source operating system, which means that anyone can write programs for it. It’s the basis of Android, and is also expected to be the underpinnings of Palm’s new operating system, dubbed Nova, expected to debut next month.

Here’s a look at the key smartphone operating systems:

“If you’re e-mail-centric, RIM still has the best overall mobile e-mail experience” of any smartphone, said Greengart. “And some of that is because of the keyboards on many of its products.” But it's also because of the BlackBerry operating system, which is considered solid, reliable and menu-driven, with almost all options and choices for where to go or what to do on the device packed away in Research In Motion’s extensive menus.

RIM is very focused on keeping its operating system relatively easy to use and has been aware that “when you build too many things into a device it becomes confusing,” said Burden of ABI Research. “Go back in time, when everyone was throwing in media players into their mobile phones, and RIM didn’t right away.”

In moving to its first all-touchscreen device, the Storm, RIM has made some major updates to its operating system, with more on the way, to make things work as smoothly on it as on its devices with physical QWERTY keyboards.

“If you’ve ever played with the Storm, you know there’s still a lot of bugs and quirks with it,” said Burden. “RIM has a lot more work to do around that OS. It’s been a tremendous undertaking for them. But it just shows the types of problems you can have when you have an operating system that wasn’t intended to be on a capacitive screen.”

Mac OS X
Apple’s iPhone is considered by some to have the best mobile Web browsing experience of any, in part because of its Safari Web browser, and also because of the iPhone’s high-quality 3.5-inch screen.

“Apple’s is a very easy and intuitive operating system,” said Burden.

The phone uses a version of Mac OS X that doesn’t have a cut-and-paste feature, an irritant to iPhone fans who otherwise swear by the device.

As part of OS X, there’s also iTunes, “which allows you to do things you simply can’t do on other phones,” said Greengart. “I’m not talking about buying individual songs, which you can do on many other phones. With iTunes, you can rent a movie on your iPhone.”

iTunes also serves as the synchronization engine so that you can “move all your calendars and contacts to your computer and very easily synchronize whatever video content and podcasts you have,” he said.

“iTunes, I think, is really Apple’s secret weapon,” said Greengart. “Even though the device’s user interface is extraordinary, if you made an iPhone clone that had the exact same user interface but didn’t have iTunes, you’d be missing a big chunk of what makes the iPhone special.”

The App Store difference
The ease with which the phone can be customized, with personal software programs from Apple’s App Store, also is a “powerful” component, Greengart said, and one that is being added by others.

Android has the fledgling Android Market; RIM is planning an application “storefront” in the spring, and Palm and Microsoft have similar efforts underway.

Windows Mobile
You’ll find Windows Mobile on a variety of phones from many different vendors including HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola and even Palm, which has offered its Treo models with either the Palm OS or Windows Mobile OS. Samsung’s popular BlackJack and Motorola’s Q smartphones use Windows Mobile.

“Microsoft has been all about taking the PC experience into a mobile phone, and to some extent, they were somewhat successful,” said Burden. “Most people don’t look at a Windows Mobile phone as terribly intuitive. But what Microsoft has done is develop an OS for devices that seems to have resonated with business users.”

Windows Mobile “basically mimics a little computer with a little start menu,” said Greengart. “It’s highly logically organized, so it’s very easy to get around. The learning curve is fairly minimal for anyone who’s ever used a Windows PC, but at the same time it’s not that exciting.”

To make it more so, especially on touchscreen phones, companies like Samsung and HTC have added overlays, or “skins,” to Windows Mobile that make it more user-friendly for touch applications.

Windows Mobile 6.1 has some improvements over 6.0, including a better home screen, and is more stable in terms of fewer crashes or freezes, Greengart.

“The big question is what kind of update Microsoft will do with it in 2009,” he said. “In the past they have shown versions of Windows Mobile that are much more consumer friendly.”

The Palm Operating System, due for a refresh, preceded the iPhone in the way it displays its icons on the home screen.

“One of Palm’s best qualities is its simplicity and its personal information management applications,” said Greengart. “The Palm OS is still the easiest operating system to add a calendar appointment to.”

But Palm's operating system has been losing market share, mainly to RIM and Apple. The Palm OS is about to get a major re-do called “Nova.”

It’s not known whether Nova, based on Linux, will be able to put Palm back on the smartphone map.

Nova “seems to be Palm’s last-ditch efforts in this space,” said Burden. “We don’t know what it will look like. I suspect it will be a platform that is not only for mobile phones, but for Internet devices and netbooks,” smaller laptops that focus on Web browsing and e-mail.

Backed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, there’s only one phone right now that uses Android, the T-Mobile G1. But in the months ahead, there are going to be others coming to market that rely on Android, an open-source operating system based on Linux.

An update to the operating system called “cupcake,” due out next year, will improve e-mail, Web browsing and phone functionality, as well as a host of fixes to the operating system.

At this point, Android is very much viewed as “the Google phone.” In order to use the G1, for example, you have to have a Gmail e-mail account.

“If you live online with Google, you use Gmail, Google Maps, Calendar and do a lot of Google searches, you’re really going to like Android because all those things are built into the OS from the outset,” said Greengart.

If you want to get your Outlook work e-mail, though, there are no programs yet for Android that will let you do so.

Mobile Linux has multiple flavors, as is appropriate for an open-source operating system. You won’t necessarily see Linux mentioned as a phone’s operating system. Motorola, for example, sells a lot of mobile Linux phones.

“They don’t give you any way to add applications to them, or to synchronize with a PC, either,” said Greengart. “The consumer smartphone experience, which usually includes mobile e-mail and some sort of PC synchronization, is absent from these devices.”

Symbian, like Linux, isn’t necessarily marketed as part of a phone; it’s very much an under-the-hood operating system, purring away without too much bother.

“The reason why it was so successful in the early days of smartphones is because Nokia was putting it into mobile phones and de-emphasizing that these phones had operating systems in them,” said Burden of ABI Research.

“People buying these phones just thought they were buying a better camera phone, or whatever, and not realizing they were necessarily buying a smartphone. That says a lot about the simplicity of that operating system.”

Symbian’s popularity “stems in large part from some exceptional products made by Nokia,” Greengart said. There are other companies that have licensed Symbian, including Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson, “but Nokia ships the lion’s share of Symbian smartphones,” he said.