Apple’s iPhone OS and Google’s Android OS have a great deal in common; both are Linux-based operating systems for smartphones that have been put together by companies best known for their accomplishments in the PC space. But there are some dramatic differences that make these mobile platforms almost as different as they can be.
The iPhone’s operating system is completely closed. It is being developed by Apple and for Apple. The only smartphones that will ever run it are made by this one company.
Android, on the other hand, is open. It being developed primarily by Google, but with the help of a collection of companies. Many of the members of this group, the Open Handset Alliance, will release smartphones based on Android, including HTC, Samsung, and Motorola.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems, and the competition between the two is going to shape the smartphone market for years to come.
iPhone: Closed System
Before Apple came along, the poster child for closed operating systems was BlackBerry. RIM has built a very, very successful company by developing a proprietary operating system to run only on its smartphones, and Apple is following in its footsteps.
The biggest advantage of this is it lets the developers target the OS for a specific group of devices. Apple’s engineers know exactly what the hardware running their OS is going to be, and can tweak the OS to make it run as efficiently on that hardware as possible.
In addition, because there’s just one company making BlackBerries, iPhones, etc. these operating systems and associated software are targeted to fulfill that company’s goals for their products. The developers don’t have to try to meet the disparate needs of a variety of companies.
The disadvantage of a completely closed platform is that limited input can lead to limited devices. For example, Apple prefers built-in memory to memory card slots. If you want a smartphone with a memory card slot, an iPhone isn’t an option for you. Period.
Android: Open System
Google and its partners are creating a completely open operating system. It will even be open source, so anyone who would like to can take a look at the source code.
The real strength of this system is it allows a huge amount of people and companies to collaborate on this OS. Any company who wants to make a smartphone based on Android can do so without paying a licensing fee, and can modify the software in any way to make it suit its specific needs.
The drawback of this arrangement is it can waste huge amounts of time. The OHA members are either going to have to spend a great deal of time hammering out their differences to make an OS that meets all their needs, or each one is going to have to spend time and resources modifying the generic version to suit themselves.
Even in the best circumstances, the default version of this operating system is going to have to be fairly generic, as it will have been developed by companies who plan to use it on a wide range of smartphones, with different screen sizes, input methods, processors, RAM, etc. There’s the danger that by trying to be everything to everyone, Android won’t be very good at anything.
Of course, companies will be able to modify the generic version to suit their specific needs, but if they have to spend months tinkering with Android, there’s not much time savings over starting from scratch. And if all the versions of Android are very different from each other, the OHA loses much of the advantages of it being a cohesive platform.
Between the Two Extremes
I’m using the iPhone and Android to discuss two extremes. Most smartphone companies fall somewhere in between.
That’s where I put all the mobile operating systems that are open to licensing. These aren’t open-source operating systems, but they are developed in collaboration between the licensor (Microsoft, Symbian Limited, Access) and the the licensees (Nokia, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, etc.) The licensor is responsible for the development of the OS, but the licensees have a great deal of influence on what’s in it.
This is a compromise which, like all such, has every disadvantage of both options. That’s why many companies are moving to one extreme or the other.
Palm, Inc. is following Apple’s lead and is in the process of creating a proprietary Linux-based operating system for its consumer-oriented smartphones. Generally called either Palm OS II or Nova , this will debut next year. Palm is still going to be a Windows Mobile licensee at the same time, though.
Nokia and the whole group of companies that use the Symbian OS are going the opposite direction by taking Google and the OHA’s path. Their operating system — and the S60 and UIQ user interfaces for it — are going completely open. The Symbian OS will be open to development by anyone, and every company who wants to make a smartphone running it can do so without charge.
There you have it, two polar opposites each trying to accomplish the same thing: make a successful smartphone operating system. It’s going to be interesting to see how these very different strategies play out in the coming years.
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