A simple guide to mobile operating systems

Jonathan Morris
July 28, 2011

If you’re in the market for a smartphone, we’ve got a quick and simple guide that will explain the ins and outs of each major platform…


Google’s Android is part proprietary, part open, but is licensed free to any phone manufacturer wanting to use it – making it the OS of choice for most manufacturers.

Built around a touch interface, it supports full multitasking and has a variety of modern features, including widgets, live wallpapers (from OS 2.1), social networking support (often included with the native apps) and support for NFC (Near Field Communications) since Android 2.3 (aka ‘Gingerbread’). Tablets run on V3+.

Central to Android’s operation is the use of a Google account, pulling down Gmail, Contacts, Calendar and Maps favourites with ease. The Android Market app store has thousands of apps and games and is rapidly gaining on Apple, quite likely overtaking in the near future.

The Android world is slightly fragmented, however, from ‘vanilla’ devices to those with custom user interfaces,  like TouchWiz or Sense. Specifications vary from model to model Google is working towards standardisation with the next version that combines smartphones and tablets.


Almost as old as Symbian and Windows Mobile, RIM’s Blackberry OS has evolved from handling pager-style messages to becoming a full smartphone operating system that can handle native applications and the web.

Almost exclusively designed around a thumb-keyboarded QWERTY form factor, Blackberry OS excels at streamlined communications: email, text, instant messaging (BBM), both in and out, with a high level of security.

Blackberry OS went through a series of transformations in 2010, with a brand new OS. Although the user interface is important, the core Blackberry strengths remain very competitive and unrivalled whether running OS 5 or the new OS 6 and 7 (with support for NFC) being rolled out.

Blackberry App World is downloadable for all recent RIM devices and provides an on-device app store similar to that for the other operating systems mentioned on this page. The other big hit for BlackBerry users is the popularity of BBM (BlackBerry Messenger).

iOS (iPhone)

Launched to high media acclaim in 2007 and designed from the ground up for use with capacitive touchscreens and Apple’s proprietary hardware, the iOS still provides a premium user experience, with limited use of complex dialogs and with an emphasis on interacting with on-screen elements directly.

Third party apps were added in 2008 and the iPhone App Store has been a runaway success and a model for the rest of the industry ever since.

Content and apps are managed through the desktop-hosted iTunes, though the iPhone can be also be used to manage content on the move for most – especially with the introduction of iOS 5 that does everything Over-The-Air.

The main limitation of the OS was no multitasking for third party applications (e.g. background media and messaging), but this was added on iOS 4. Further updates added wireless printing and music streaming and support for Apple TV. In mid 2011, Apple launches iCloud – replacing the rather disappointing MobileMe service.


The Symbian world used to span many different interfaces, but only Series 60 has survived to the present day – in both touch and non-touch varieties, although the non-touch models are being phased out to see hybrids like the Nokia E6.

Symbian was the undisputed leader across the world by volume, with sales switching from keyboard-based to touchscreen-based models running S60 5th Edition, but this is now changing following the announcement that Nokia will be backing Windows Phone OS as it’s main platform by the end of 2011.

By working closely with Microsoft on the development of Windows Phone OS, it seems Symbian will no longer be a priority for Nokia and the intention is to gradually phase it out over the coming year or two, although Nokia claims it will still release more Symbian devices for the foreseeable future.

The update to ‘Symbian Anna’ brings a new web browser, font, logos and other tweaks to inject new life.

Windows Mobile / Windows Phone

Originally dubbed ‘Pocket PC’, Windows Mobile had its roots in standalone stylus-driven PDAs. Although touchscreens should have been a benefit, it took over five years for Microsoft to ditch the legacy code, and it was only by 2010 that it was fully supporting capacitive touchscreens and finger input.

With many user interface issues, manufacturers quickly came up with alternatives, creating confusion and inconsistency. Windows Mobile has always had multi-tasking, but since Windows Phone 7, it has been tightly regulated in a similar manner to Apple’s iOS.

Handsets must also comply with a minimum ‘chassis’ specification to ensure a consistent user-experience, regardless of manufacturer, which is considered a plus.

Windows Mobile 6.5 is now reaching a point where support is due to end, leaving Windows Phone 7 as the only option, despite being incompatible with old apps. Sales have not been great, with Windows Mobile devices rumoured to be outselling Windows Phone devices.



The ‘next generation’ OS from the people behind the best-selling Palm Pilot, now owned by HP. WebOS is built around open Web standards, making it easy to create compatible widget applications. WebOS offers great social network integration and accessible multitasking through an innovative ‘card’ metaphor.


Short for ‘Linux Mobile’, this mobile operating system has the backing of many feature phone makers, including NEC and Panasonic (Motorola was a supporter but recently started backing out). Although in theory a smartphone OS, LiMo hasn’t been used as such so far.


Based on Samsung’s proprietary in-house phone operating system (TouchWiz), Bada extends this with a number of smartphone features. Although the announcement of another smartphone OS sounds silly, Samsung’s global reach means it shouldn’t be written off completely, although sales haven’t been electrifying.



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