You wouldn't buy a car without looking under the bonnet. So learn a bit about your smartphone's operating system.
Basic mobile phones do little more than make calls but high-performance smartphones put a powerful computer in your pocket.
With functionality comes complexity, however, which is why today's smartphones run powerful operating systems. Just as with the early days of personal computing, there are a number of smartphone operating systems competing for dominance. Apple's iOS only runs on Apple phones, just as Mac OS only runs on Apple computers. Meanwhile, Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 are available to a number of handset makers.
Smartphones come with a range of applications, or apps, pre-installed - such as a mail client, calendar, address book and web browser.
In the past few years, app stores have become the cornerstone of the modern smartphone, with new apps turning your phone into a games machine, in-car satnav, reading library, photo viewer and portable cinema.
The tight integration between Apple's hardware and software offers a slick ''just works'' user experience on the iPhone. Apple tightly controls the iPhone and app store, while Google grants Android makers and users greater freedom. Microsoft aims to take the middle ground with Windows Phone 7.
Apple's iOS smartphone platform leads the way in terms of touch-friendly mobile interfaces but tends to lag behind when it comes to new features. The original iPhone was released in 2007 but only sold in the US, while the iPhone 3G came to Australia the next year. Apple has just unveiled the successor to the iPhone4, and the iOS5 software update is also on the way.
iOS 5 is set to overhaul the cumbersome iOS universal notification system. Apple offers the most extensive app store and you can also buy music and movies directly from an iPhone. Its close vetting of apps ensures stability and security. Apple also makes it easy to stream content between iGadgets (iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch), iTunes and other Apple-endorsed gear.
The MobileMe service offers cloud-based contact, calendar and mail sync but is set to be replaced by iCloud. Unfortunately, Apple has a history of holding back features that don't suit its business model, or those of its partners. It also refuses to add Adobe Flash compatibility to iOS.
After a slow start, Google's Android smartphone platform rivals that of Apple. Google acquired Android Inc in 2005 and the first phone, the HTC Dream, was released in 2008.
Android devices also have access to Android Market, which has matured to the point where you'll find apps to meet most of your needs. It's worth noting that some apps won't run on the tiny Android phones with screen resolutions below 480 x 320.
The latest phones come with Android 2.3 Gingerbread installed and run Adobe Flash content smoothly. Android 3.x Honeycomb is designed for tablets, although Google intends to combine the two with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. One of Android's strengths is tight integration with Google services such as email and calendar, along with third-party services such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
Android can automatically cross-match your buddy lists and populate your contacts, letting you access such services from within the contacts app. Such services are also tightly integrated in Android's slick notification system. Third-party applications can integrate more tightly with Android than with Apple’s iOS, without Google vetting functionality, although the approach has security implications and Google has been forced to remove several malicious apps from the Android Market.
Microsoft went back to the drawing board with Windows Phone 7, starting from scratch last year with an elegant, touch-friendly operating system.
Windows Mobile 6.5 apps won’t run on new Windows Phone 7 devices and the new OS initially lacked lot of features. The Windows Phone 7.5 ‘‘’Mango’’ update added features such as multi-tasking for third-party apps, copy and paste, threaded messaging, Wi-Fi hotpots and a full HTML5 web browser, but it still lacks Adobe Flash. Microsoft is working with handset makers and telcos to add Wi-Fi hotspot functionality to existing WP7 handsets.
Initially targeted at business users, RIM’s BlackBerry OS underwent a touch-friendly, consumer-focused makeover last year with the release of BlackBerry 6 OS. Now BlackBerry 7OS devices are hitting the shelves, offering more grunt to support improved graphics and an improved WebKit browser with optimised HTML5 performance. Improved social-networking integration is also on offer, such as an updated Facebook for BlackBerry app to tighten integration with BlackBerry Messenger.
Next year, RIM plans to switch its top-of-the line BlackBerry phones to the QNX operating system, which currently forms the basis of Tablet OS, used on the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.
Symbian evolved from the EPOCoperating system and was embraced by several phone makers before it was acquired by Nokia. It reached its apex with Symbian OS 9.4 running the S605th Edition interface, as seen on popular phones such as the Nokia N97.
Sadly, Symbian was left behind in the touch revolution sparked by the iOS and later Android, with the touch-friendly Symbian3 update on last year’s Nokia N8 receiving disappointing reviews. The Symbian Anna update will come to all Symbian3 phones, although Nokia has outsourced Symbian development and plans to focus on Windows Phone devices.
MeeGo is a Linux-based operating system designed to run on a variety of mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, netbooks and in-car entertainment systems. MeeGo was unveiled by Nokia and Intel, merging their Maemo and Moblin platforms, and many other manufacturers have come on board.
The N9 is Nokia’s first MeeGo phone, although a MeeGo developer’s update is available for the Maemo-powered Nokia N900.
MeeGo is also designed to run on netbooks from such brands as Acer, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and Fujitsu and is pre-installed on a handful of models. Nokia’s commitment to MeeGo faltered with the Windows Phone 7 deal.
It appears the N9 will not be for sale worldwide and will be Nokia’s last MeeGo phone.