Smartphone OS smackdown

Does the world need another smartphone operating system? Apple’s iPhone OS is still booming; Google’s Android is increasingly promising; and three longtime contenders–Microsoft’s Windows Mobile,RIM’s BlackBerry OS, and Symbian’s S60–are undergoing serious renovation to keep up with the times.

All of which presents a major challenge for WebOS, the much-anticipated, much-delayed phone OS that debuts on the Palm Pre. For WebOS to have a future, it must do more than catch up with its competitors. In one or more major respects, it must be better than existing alternatives. Otherwise, Palm–the beleaguered company whose PalmPilot and Treo were handheld-computing landmarks–might just as well have built a Pre that used Android or some other already-here OS.

Having spent a bit of time with the Pre, I’m very happy that Palm chose the hard route rather than the expedient one. WebOS, which looked so promising when the company unveiled it at CES in January, =idgml-35b7d285-295c-468c-91e8-0e19176616cb delivers on most of that promise. It’s an exciting platform for next-generation smartphone apps; it’s a fitting heir to the groundbreaking-but-obsolete Palm OS it replaces; and it’s the most polished, inventive iPhone OS rival to date. Even if you never buy a WebOS phone, you may benefit from its existence. (I suspect that other mobile OS developers will soon try to replicate some of its signature features, such as its intuitive multitasking and its deep integration with online services.)

Read on for a look at how WebOS compares with Apple’s iPhone OS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, Nokia’s Symbian S60 5th Edition, and RIM’s BlackBerry OS. I judged the five operating systems on their capabilities, ease of use, and visual panache, and I assessed both their standard applications and third-party programs.

Apple iPhone OS

What it is: iPhone OS is a pocket-size version of Mac OS X, shrunk down and redesigned to power the iPhone 3G.

How it works: As you zip around the iPhone 3G’s multitouch interface with your fingertips, hardware and software blur into one pleasing experience. With other OSs, it’s all too easy to get lost in menus or forget how to accomplish simple tasks; iPhone apps, however, are remarkably sleek and consistent. Version 3.0, due this summer, promises to fill in most of the holes in version 2.2 by adding cut and paste, OS-wide search, better support for landscape-mode use, and the ability for programs such as IM clients to alert you even when they’re not running. (The OS will still lack true multitasking, however.)

How it looks: Terrific. Everything from the sophisticated typography to the smooth animation effects contributes to the richest, most attractive environment ever put on a handheld device.

Built-in applications: What’s good is great–especially the Safari browser, which makes navigating sites that weren’t designed for viewing on a phone remarkably simple. The OS’s music and video programs are truly of iPod caliber, too. But as a productivity tool the iPhone lacks depth: For instance, you get no apps for editing documents or managing a to-do list.

Third-party stuff: Thanks to Apple’s hugely influential App Store, the iPhone has gone from having no third-party apps to having tens of thousands of them–many of which are free–in less than a year. The best ones, such as Facebook and the Evernote note-taker, are outstanding. But the limitations that Apple imposes on third-party apps–they can’t run in the background or access data other than their own–put major obstacles in the way of everything from instant messengers to office suites. And Apple, the sole distributor of iPhone software, has declined to make available some useful applications that developers have submitted.

Bottom line: Despite the strides made by Android and WebOS, iPhone OS remains the most enjoyable and intuitive phone operating system in existence. And version 3.0 promises to add many of the advanced features it needs to prevent other competitors from racing past it.

Google Android

What it is: The Android phone OS is an ambitious open-source platform that Google invites companies to customize to their liking for an array of handsets. So far, however, it’s available on just one model in the United States, the T-Mobile G1. However, another 18 Android phones are expected by year’s end, and expectations for its long-term success remain high.

How it works: On the G1 and its follow-up, the G2 (due in July), Android’s interface feels like an iPhone/BlackBerry mashup–much of it uses the touchscreen, but you also get a trackball and Menu, Home, and Back buttons. The highly customizable Android desktop is reminiscent of those in desktop OSs like Windows Vista and OS X Leopard. You can arrange shortcuts as you like and install widgets such as clocks and search fields. Overall, Android compares well to older platforms, though it isn’t as effortless as iPhone OS.

How it looks: Android isn’t an aesthetic masterpiece like iPhone OS, but it’s clean and appealing, and it makes good use of the high-resolution screens on the G1 and its successor.

Built-in applications: They’re tightly integrated with Google services such as Gmail and Google Calendar–and when you turn on the phone for the first time, the first thing you do is give it your Google account info (which is fine as long as you don’t depend on alternatives such as Microsoft Exchange). Android’s browser lacks the iPhone’s multitouch navigation but is otherwise a close rival. Its best music feature is the ability to download DRM-free songs from Amazon. The only videos it can play are YouTube clips, alas.

Third-party stuff: Android hasn’t taken off as an app platfom as quickly as the iPhone OS did, but its iPhone-like Market store is rapidly filling up with good stuff, including intriguing apps (such as the Glympse location-sharing service) that aren’t yet available on the iPhone. As more Android phones appear, more developers are likely to get excited about writing iPhone-style apps for it.

Bottom line: Android remains a promising work in progress, but its current incarnation is less inventive and elegant than either iPhone OS or WebOS.

Microsoft Windows Mobile

What it is: Microsoft’s mobile edition of Windows, of course. Version 6.1 ships on phones from manufacturers such as HTC (with its Touch Diamond2 and Touch Pro2), Motorola, Palm, and Samsung.

How it works: Windows Mobile mimics full-strength Windows, complete with a Start menu and system tray. This isn’t a virtue–who wants to squint at tiny icons on devices meant for on-the-go use? Manufacturers such as HTC and Samsung supplement Windows Mobile with their own software layer or with tweaks to the underlying Windo

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