iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry or webOS What’s the perfect platform

You could be forgiven for thinking that there are only two choices when it comes to smartphone operating systems: Android or iOS. Although those are the two clear dominant forces, there are still others out there that offer alternative experiences.

Some are more popular than others, but they each have individual traits that make them unique. Blackberry’s OS has been around in one form or another since the dawn of time – it seems. Microsoft relatively recently scrapped its Windows Mobile OS in favor of a much more modern, and intuitive Windows Phone software.

Others that barely get a mention in the general public are Symbian, Meego and webOS. Those last three are virtually dead, but webOS in particular offers some great solutions.

One thing is for sure though: there is no perfect operating system. Although many will defend their preferred platform to the death, most will still agree that things could be changed, and improved.

If they genuinely thought the OS was perfect as it is, they wouldn’t update it – ever, or buy a new device running a more up-to-date version. So, what does each offer that’s great and what’s worth considering? More importantly, if I was making my perfect OS, which elements from each would I include?

1. iOS

I have to start with my favorite. It’d be wrong not to. Let’s face it, although I can appreciate other platforms and see their strengths, iPhone’s operating system is my favorite overall.

What makes it for me is its simplicity, its integrated ecosystem and reliability. “It just works” is an irritating cliché at the best of times, but no other phrase really defines Apple’s product better without overcomplicating it.

What would I take?

I would take along the key elements – for me – which makes it work as well as it does. iTunes, the App Store, iCloud and anything else that requires an Apple ID. The fact that it’s all linked together, so you can have one uniform sign-in for everything Apple is awesome.

The App Store has some relatively strict guidelines on how to get an app accepted, which in my experience means there’s more quality, and less crashing or malware. The thriving developer community means support is never going to be an issue, and when bugs are detected, they’re dealt with quickly.

I love iCloud too, all my email, calendars, reminders are all available from any device I have. PhotoStream and iCloud backup are parts that really help it shine through.

Wi-Fi sync in iOS 5 is a winner. It’s nice to know that if my device bricks, I have a hard backup on my computer, as well as one in the cloud. Along with iTunes, of course, comes the Music and Video player.

Formerly under the “iPod” banner, they’ve now been split in to two, which works great for keeping your different media separate. Adding playlists, Cover Flow, Genius and iTunes Match are all in one convenient location.

Like I said in a previous post, Apple’s OS just looks more polished compared to other operating systems. It’s no good having great functionality alone, it’s got to look good to be a pleasure to use.

All the menus, “switches”, fonts, and the color scheme make it look professional, and like the guys who designed it actually cared what it looked like. I’d take Siri too – it’s great for reminders and calendar events, and is much more intelligent than other voice detection offerings.

What would I leave?

That irritating, uncustomizable, ever-present grid of Apps. You can understand why Apple didn’t include backgrounds in the original version of iOS (or iPhone OS as it was called then). Even if you have a gorgeous picture in the background, you can’t see it, it’s covered in icons.

I’d also leave behind Apple’s version of “multitasking”. I’m not saying that I want Android’s “true multitasking” – that’s just an unnecessary battery drain, but Apple’s is too simple. It’s just not attractive. For a company that supposedly values beauty, this just feels a little lazy – something that doesn’t suit the perfectionist nature of its former chief.

2. Android

Apple’s biggest competitor in the market, closing down on 50% of the smartphone world quicker than we could have imagined when the G1 was launched a few years back. Its freedom and willingness to be licensed out to any one has helped it grow.

What would I take?

The app drawer – ICS style, and customizable home screen. I love that I could have absolutely nothing on my home screen. I get the choice with Android. If I want to put all my apps in a drawer, I can.

I’m not forced to conform to someone else’s view of “better”. I wouldn’t want anything but a great wallpaper on my home screen, with all my apps being hidden away until I wanted to access them.

I’m aware that both webOS and BlackBerry are both along the same lines, however, Android was the first to have the fluid motion of physically dragging up the drawer to reveal icons. Once open, instead of dragging up and down to view all icons, I’d have it scroll from side to side (it’s more efficient, and I’ve grown accustomed to it with iOS). This would mean that I would only need one home screen, and not 5-7. It would also leave room for options I’m going to mention later.

I’d also take the integration with Google’s search engine. Instead of accessing the search from a bespoke app, I can just search by typing or pressing the almost hidden search field at the top of the Ice Cream Sandwich home screen.

Notifications. Since Android got to the drop-down notifications first, I’m going to say this comes from Google’s platform (except, I’d make it look nicer, like Notification Center in iOS.) I don’t want badges, or popups, I just want little notifications, possibly an LED to let me know I have some things to consider.

Pull down the drawer, and my list of notifications is shown in an order that I’ve chosen. And more importantly, can be hidden, without being completely forgotten.

What would I leave?

Widgets, battery killing multitasking, custom UIs and the overall geeky-look of menus. Although 4.0 gives the option to have fully adjustable widgets, I still feel like I’d hate the clutter on my screen.

If I want access to my calendar, or football scores, I’ll access an app. When it comes to multitasking, although Apple hasn’t got it right yet, I don’t think actually running the apps in the background is great either. It uses up more processing power, and battery. If I’m not actually using the app at the time I’d much rather my OS remember where I was, freeze the app, then I can go back to it whenever I want.

Custom user interfaces and manufacturers meddling with software can spoil a platform, and I can’t stand any of them. One or two make work fine, but, they mean that one operating system gives different impressions, and builds up opinions that aren’t matched by another device using the same software.

Let’s face it, if you buy a really cheap Android phone and your knowledge of smartphones isn’t great, you’re going to think that all Android phones are just as poor. Rather create one experience, but on a few devices.

3. Windows Phone

Mango – Microsoft’s latest update to the mobile OS brought some much needed, and attractive features. It brought WP7 from being something forgetful, to being a contender in the market.

What I’d take:

I like the integration with contacts and social networks. Like I mentioned in the previous section, I’d have the single home screen with app drawer. However, I’d have it so that when I slide across from the main screen I get to 2-3 other screens which offer different functionalities.

One would be my “people hub” where I can see up to date statuses, tweets, and messages from my friends. Slide across again, and we meet WP7′s multitasking. Like Apple’s it just remembers where you were and freezes the app, but, it looks much better.

The screen/cards system means you’re not just looking at a boring square icon in a dock, instead it’s a CoverFlow style view with freeze frames of the apps you have open. I’d also take the browser: IE9. It’s hardware acceleration means that refresh/frame rates are super quick, making it quite possibly the best browser to be on a mobile device.

What I’d leave:

The migraine-inducing Live Tiles. They’re way to colorful and attention seeking. I like calm and simplicity, this is everything I don’t want in a device.

4. webOS

Despite being virtually killed off completely by HP, the Palm-designed OS had a lot of potential, and I was fortunate enough to have a Pre 3 for a month or two, to at least get an experience of it while it was still possible. There are some great things in webOS.

What I’d take:

Gestures. Simply put, the way to control apps is second to none. Instead of pressing bespoke hardware/virtual keys, you simple swipe your finger in a certain way to go back, home or quit.

All this is controlled by a touch-sensitive area below the screen. Not having a key, or needing to change hand position to manipulate what you see on screen means the experience is a very comfortable one. Being able to just flick the app off the screen when you were finished is awesome too.

Other things like the app drawer, and single home screen have all been mentioned before. I’d take Skype integration too, so I can call any of my contacts on Skype without having to open a separate application. And, more importantly, they can call me, for free, from anywhere in the world. No Google Voice needed.

What I’d leave:

The icons, poor quality apps and poor performance. Despite the many positives, Palm got a lot of things wrong, which HP did nothing about. The icons are very old fashioned, and almost childish. They’re big, and look like they belong on a Sat Nav and not a phone.

App support is non-existent, and even popular apps like Ebay and Twitter cannot be found. Nobody makes apps for webOS. Due to poor hardware, the software was also a little unreliable.

It could be sluggish, and inconsistent in performance – even on the newest devices with faster processors. I’d also leave the notifications, if you get two or three alerts from different apps/services, you’ll soon lose a good chunk of your screen as they build up from the bottom of the window.

5. Blackberry

One of the old dogs now. Blackberry has been around for years, and for a long period was the only smartphone to consider. iPhone’s arrival and the resurgence of Android has pushed it to the background as it’s now used predominantly by either businessmen or teenagers who like texting.

What I’d take:

Although iMessage is essentially the same as BBM – and more polished – I have to give credit to RIM for developing it and making it popular in the market. It’s one of the key unique selling points of any BlackBerry device.

Chatting to anyone else for free, sending images, and voice notes are all incredibly useful features. However, unlike BBM I’d not have it in a separate app, or requiring PIN numbers. Instead, I’d integrate it in to the native messaging client.

Nothing handles email like a Blackberry. It’s instant and reliable (when RIMs servers are working.) In fact, the only time I ever replied to emails on my mobile device was when I had a Canadian QWERTY-equipped smartphone. Needless to say, I’d have have to take email from the BlackBerry.

What I’d leave:

The pop-up menus, complicated and ugly settings menus: essentially the stuff that’s been around in the guts of BlackBerry’s OS since its dawn. Having all those buttons, and plain menus, and PC desktop-style folders have ensured that RIM’s platform continues to look aged compared to the newer and more innovative offerings from Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Final thoughts:

Essentially, the perfect OS is one made with features from all five mentioned above. Combined in to one neatly presented package, it could make a fantastic operating system. I’m not deluding myself for a second to think that this could ever happen.

That being said, they all freely copy each others ideas to improve their own platforms. Unfortunately for those who love Meego or Symbian, I don’t feel like either offers anything that I couldn’t get from a different OS. Both are essentially dead operating systems now, thanks to Windows’ arrival on Nokia handsets.

My main motivation for writing this article wasn’t just to share my own thoughts. My own opinion is no more valid than yours, or anyone else’s. So, I want to know what your perfect smartphone OS would look like. Which elements from each OS would you take to create your perfect user experience? Comment below

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