Knowledge Base

Mobile Operating Systems Compared: iOS, Android and Windows Phone

grand master

Operating Systems.jpgIn our on-going series of articles about mobile technology, we’ve been looking at various different parts of your mobile phone and how they work together to bring you today’s smartphone experience. We’ve also been asking for your thoughts on which features you’d put in your ideal phone for giffgaff members.


So far, we’ve discussed and debated over key components of the modern smartphone such as LCD displays VS organic LED displays, GPS chips and GPS navigation, hardware and software keyboards and voice recognition. We’ve also looked at new and novel form factors such as the Samsung Galaxy Note, a hybrid smartphone-tablet device. This week we turn our attention to one of the most fiercely debated elements of a modern smartphone, the smartphone operating system. The operating system is the software which brings together all of these components and allows you to make phone calls, send text messages and use applications.


In this article, we discuss and compare the key smartphone operating systems: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. As giffgaff members, you use a diverse range of smartphones across all of the major operating system platforms. We’d like to know: Do you have a favourite operating system? Which operating system has the most relevant applications for you? Would you put iOS, Android, Windows Phone or something else on the ideal mobile phone for giffgaff members?


What is an operating system?


The operating system on your mobile phone is the very basic software which allows your phone to operate. It brings together the hardware chips and components inside your phone so they all work in conjunction with each other. The operating system provides all of the basic functionality of your smartphone: being able to make calls, send and receive text messages, browse the internet and being able to run applications. Your choice of operating system has a massive impact on the look and feel of your phone and the applications that it’s able to run.


Apple iOS 5Apple iOS: iPhone, iPad & iPod Touch


The best known operating system for mobile phones is probably Apple’s iOS operating system (previously known as iPhone OS). Developed by Apple, iOS can only be found running on Apple’s own devices such as their smartphones (iPhone family), tablets (iPad & iPad 2) and portable music players (iPod Touch). Development of iOS is dictated solely by Apple with software updates such as new features and bug fixes being delivered by Apple through iTunes.


iOS Devices.jpgiOS is often said to be the easiest operating system for new smartphone users to pick up. With its large market share, iOS also benefits from being the first platform that developers usually produce apps for. This means iOS devices are able to access a large variety of applications – over 500,000 are available from Apple’s “App Store”. Many of these applications cost in the region of 69p but a decent selection of free applications are available too. Once downloaded, these applications will appear as a new icon on your home screen.  iOS is a purely touchscreen-based operating system (it only supports on-screen software keyboards) and includes standard applications such as a web browser, e-mail and maps. Notably, iOS has built-in parental controls.


Killer application for iOS: Owners of an iPhone 4S can take advantage of the “Siri” virtual assistant. It uses voice recognition technology to understand what you want to do.


Android Logo.jpgAndroid: Open source alternative from Google


The primary competitor to Apple’s iOS comes in the form of Google’s Android operating system. Designed to be an “open” alternative to iOS, Google develops Android internally before releasing it to smartphone manufacturers free of charge. This has led to the Android platform being adopted by companies such as Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. These companies often take the basic Android operating system as provided by Google and add their own customisations to it before shipping it on their phones.


Popular smartphones based on Android include the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Samsung Galaxy Note, the Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0, the HTC Sensation family of smartphones and the low-cost Orange San Francisco. Android-based tablets include the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Motorola Xoom and the HTC Flyer.


Android UI.jpgWith the large number of Android users out there, application developers are increasingly making their applications available on the Android platform. Over 400,000 applications are available from the Android Market with a larger proportion of free applications than on the Apple iOS platform.


Proponents of Android argue that one of its key benefits is its versatility. Android can be used on both tablets and smartphones and is also able to support devices with hardware keyboards such as the HTC ChaCha and the HTC Desire Z. Android has also been particularly popular with the developer community as it allows users to create and install their own customised versions of Android (“custom ROMs”).


Criticisms of Android sometimes include the lack of consistency between different Android devices, delays in software updates and difficulties in ease of use.


Killer application for Android: Google has created many exciting applications which are exclusive to Android. Android phones are bundled with free GPS navigation but it’s also worthwhile downloading the Google Goggles augmented reality application and the Google Translate application which includes voice recognition for speech-to-speech translation.


Windows Phone.jpgWindows Phone: Microsoft’s mobile operating system


Microsoft’s attempt to take on the mobile operating system market is Windows Phone. First released in 2010, Windows Phone is a fairly new operating system and hence has fewer users than iOS and Android. Many mobile phone manufacturers are now beginning to ship smartphones with Windows Phone – examples include Nokia’s Lumia range, the Samsung Omnia 7, the LG Optimus 7 and the HTC Titan.


Windows Phone has a fairly distinct look from both iOS and Android: it features Microsoft’s tile-based Metro user interface (this is also set to feature in the next version of Windows 8 for PCs). Metro does away with the icon-based layout of iOS and Android and features application interfaces which are spread across horizontally-scrolling canvases.


Nokia Lumia 800.jpgIntegrated into Windows Phone is Xbox Live, Microsoft Office and access to 40,000+ applications from the Windows Phone Marketplace. The range of applications available for Windows Phone is substantially smaller than on both iOS and Android but this is likely to increase as Windows Phone matures as an operating system.


Killer application for Windows Phone: The integration of Xbox Live into Windows Phone is a great feature for gamers. You’re able to use your Xbox Live avatar to keep track of your high scores and see which games your friends are playing.


iPhone VS Android VS Windows Phone: Feature Comparison



Apple iOS

 Apple iOS 5


Android Logo.jpg

Windows Phone

Windows Phone.jpg





Popular Smartphones

Popular Tablets


User Interface


Icons & widgets

Tile-based (Metro UI)

Application Store

App Store

Android Market

Windows Phone Marketplace

Apps available




GPS navigation

Via applications

Yes, free GPS navigation included

Via applications

Parental controls


Via applications

Via applications


Other Operating Systems


  • BlackBerry OS. BlackBerry use their own proprietary operating system on their smartphones dubbed “BlackBerry OS”. Historically, BlackBerry devices such as the BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry Bold have been popular for their hardware keyboards. However, recent versions of the BlackBerry OS have also added support for touchscreens such as found in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry Torch. The BlackBerry Playbook tablet uses a separate operating system called QNX which is set to form the basis of the new “BlackBerry 10” operating system.
  • Symbian. Previously developed by the Symbian Foundation, the Symbian operating system was best known for being used on devices such as the Nokia N95 and the Nokia N8. Nokia have switched to using Windows Phone for their new smartphones so it is unlikely Symbian will see many future updates.
  • Bada. Samsung have their own proprietary operating system called “Bada” which is used on their “Samsung Wave” family of devices.
  • Tizen. Tizen is a new “work in progress” mobile operating system being developed jointly by Intel and Samsung. The roots of the operating system can be traced back to MeeGo which was developed jointly by Intel and Nokia before Nokia switched to Windows Phone. The first smartphones running Tizen are set to be available in 2012.
  • WebOS. WebOS was the operating system used in mobile devices by HP/Palm – namely in the ‘Pre’ smartphones and ‘Touchpad’ tablet. HP are no longer producing mobile devices but have promised to make the source code of WebOS available to the developer community.

Your thoughts…


One of the key differentiation points between smartphones is the operating system they run. Popular operating systems include Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone but other operating systems such as BlackBerry OS, Nokia's Symbian and Samsung’s Bada also exist.


Do you have a favourite mobile operating system? Is the user interface or the number of available applications the most important factor for you? Does the tile-based user interface of Windows Phone appeal to you or do you prefer the larger choice of applications available on iOS and Android?


If you were designing your perfect mobile phone for other giffgaff members, which operating system would you use?



Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.


wow very detailed blog! android ftw Smiley Wink
mad scientist

Kenlo you're blogs are great!


Keep up the good work Smiley Very Happy


I used Android for just under 1 year, and then I moved to iOS. I prefer it. More simpler, and the software is designed well. More apps for me, and I prefer apps on iOS. Never had an interest in Android apps.


I think iOS is great for handling emails, set out nicely.


Android is a great OS, but for me iOS was better. I'm not even being biased as I've used both. 


I prefer Android. I like the freedom and versatility of Android and as far as I'm concerned the apps are just as good as apple's and 400,000 apps is plenty. I don't thing theres much on itunes that you can't find an alternative, like for like app for on the Android market.


Everything I want and use regularly are easy to access. I can fully customize the look and feel of my phone thanks to apps like Go Launcher Ex, I find my galaxy s to be perfectly reliable and today managed to upgrade my firmware to 2.3.5. 


My sister started off with Blackberry as her first smartphone, she switched to iPhone, which she loved but now has a Galaxy S, same as me and she loves it more.


A greater selection of free apps is a huge bonus to Android along with custom roms. 


I will never have any other phone or tablet except Android. I don't believe that iOS is easier to navigate than Android. I had my phone figured out in less than a day. 


Android now has around 50% of the market share of smartphone sales worldwide and I believe this will push Android to the forefront of telecommunications allowing for further development, tweaking and perfecting and I think the Android OS will go from strength to strength with ever more stable roms. Plus there's no monopolization by the big cheeses, forcing you to do things a certain way or having to pay extra to be able to use fully all the functions available on the device.


Also the fact that you can choose your style of phone rather than being given just one style (iPhone) or phones that all look the same (Blackberry) is a big plus too. Some folks like Samsung (Moi) others like sony ericsson. You can choose between hardware or software keyboards, whatever you're more comfortable with.


And unlike matt above, I think i might be a little bit biased. Smiley Happy


i personally would like to see a new os, much like webos, which will be robust and open at the same time, maybe blackberry's qnx unix os might be this


In the past I've also had an iPhone 3gs and HTC Wildfire. I currently own the LG Optimus 7 (E900) Windows Phone and have been using it for several months now.


If you've not used one, and by used one I mean actually had one in your hands and setup your facebook, twitter, customised the start screen and got all your apps set up... or seen one that has, then you're really going to be disappointed by what windows phone 7 ships like out of the box.


 I first saw a windows phone in the carphonewarehouse store in a shopping centre. They're one of the few that actually have real phones on display that are powered on and working while most other stores (orange for example) have dummy phones. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about these windows phones so I grabbed one and had a play around with it. Very boring, some blank tiles on the screen and it just felt like the phone was dead with no life to it when sat besides it was a android phone. It all its gadgets flashing away with cool colurful swoothing effects on the screen I felt lured towards the android phone.


I passed comment on the poor windows phone design to one of the staff and he prompty pulled out his windows phone and give me a tour of what is actually like to use once you've personalised it. The difference from a new windows phone and one that has been used for even a few days is like night and day.


The phone becomes personal to the owner, and not in the same way you'd add a widget to the home screen or change the wallpaper, but actual information that only you relate to fills your screen. From facebook pictures, and contacts, to events and calender reports, the weather, latest updates from apps, email and messages etc all update on the tiles. Really until you've had a windows phone its hard to explain how good it feels to have all that information just right here.

You might be thinking, well I can get a widget to do that, or I have an app to do that. Sure you do, but thats where windows phone goes one step futher and apps intergrate into the phone so they don't just become a widget or a app anymore, they just are part of the phone.


An example is my photo album. I have my windows live skydrive, the phone's camera records, all my pictures from facebook and any pictures from friends from within the pictures tile and then within the photos section I see them all. Further, if I download a camera app it no longer becomes just an extra app I have to launch it becomes and option and feature of the built in camera process. Got an augmented reality app to find local shops and services? just hit the camera button and its there as an option. As a result, the intergration that it provides might overwelm a lot of users who are new to windows phone way of doing things, certainly coming from an 'theres and app for that' way of doing things I was left feeling like I was missing 'something'. Its certainly very different from iOS and Android and while you can't customise it as you would Android, it is more personalised.


On the down side, windows phone apps and games are generally more expensive. With games like Angry birds being £2.99 vs 69p on iOS. However, you can download trial versions of any windows phone 7 apps/games for free and the xbox live games do have achivements, but I'm not sure the extra £2 warrents that. Also, if you are into games you don't have to worry about the hardware your phone runs as its not a fragmented platform, with windows phone the hardware meets a minimum hardware spec. For those who want an intergrated, very personalised experiance windows phone will provide that. Once the app prices come down as more users join and there is more quality apps and games released, then I expect windows phone to become very popular.


Very intresting post, worth considering when buying almost any phone. Thanks


great read will retweet this! and yes android FTW


I used ios for 18 months after eventually deciding to give the iphone a chance. I'd previously decided not to go for the iphone as it has always had features missing that you take for granted on other phones eg. the ability to send data to another handset via bluetooth. However a couple of years ago I was due an upgrade and really didn't really fancy anything other than the iphone 3GS. With in no time I was completely smitten with ios, it's simplicity and choice of apps. 

At the end of my iphone contract I  left myself with two options, Wait approximately 6 months for the next iphone (4s) or give an alternative such as Android a go. I decided that I was not patient enough to wait for the next iphone which could after all turn out not to be that much of an improvement on the iphone 4. Looking at Android handsets at the time there seemed 2 obvious choices - Samsung Galaxy S2 or HTC Sensation. I eventually decided on the Samsung and have to say I'm happy with my choice.

Switching from ios to Android was no effort at all and soon realised that I had more freedom and the ability to customise my handset exactly how I wanted. I no longer had to search for an icon every time I wanted to use an app, as I could set up widgets on my home screens which are constantly updated. Having now spent about a third of the amount of time using Android compared to ios I have to say I'm happy I decided to give it a go.

While I decided to plump for Android, my wife decided to stay with the iphone and eventually upgraded to the 4s. Therefore I occasionally use her handset if it's close by. It is true that there are some apps which get released first for ios and there can sometimes be a wait for them to be ported over to Android but sometimes I have also found the opposite. 

I also have some apps on my Samsung that will never be released on ios and I would really miss not having them available. 

One of the big factors in deciding which operating system to plump for is the handsets available. Obviously with ios there is one main model when it comes to handset choice where as with the alternatives there is a greater choice. Now I'm not saying that I'm 'anti apple / ios' because that isn't the case. I still find the iphone a pleasure to use and probably still the best looking/built handset, but the one thing that would currently stop me going back to the iphone is it's screen size. After using the Galaxy s2 for some time now, using an iphone 4s is like looking at a portable tv after being used to looking at something larger. I've got used to seeing more on the screen at anyone time and less need for scrolling on web pages etc.

The other big advantage with Android is the ability to play 'Flash'.

So when I next change my handset which os will I go for ? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure !

Android does everything I require and more but ios is more streamlined and dare I say it 'secure'. There are some decent looking Windows phones on the horizon but the biggest downfall here at the moment seems to be the choice of available apps and their pricing. Although if a windows phone is launched which blows everything else out of the water spec wise, I'd possibly give it a go.  I still love the iphone but the next model would have to have at least a 4" screen for me to even consider it. 

I know a lot of people who have used ios and say they couldn't be without it and not willing to try one of the alternatives.

I also know a few people who previously used ios and are now glad that they decided to give Android a go. All I can say is if you've used one os for a period of time don't be afraid to look at the alternatives. Each one has it's own merits !


I've put a hacked version of Windows Phone 7 on my HTC HD 2 and I have to say my comments echo sagum, it is brilliant they way everything is intergrated and makes it a very socal phone. As its hacked I've not been able to open the market place yet but will do shortly, I've only run it for a few days and have not had time to sort that.


Only thing I'm not so sure on is I have work twitter accounts I need to keep an eye on but don't necessarly want intergrated into the phone as much. I'm sure there are ways to sort this but I've not found them yet.


I think they are going to struggle to get market share as Android and iOS are so dominant but it is a fantastic OS, so far I prefer it over Android massively! Everything you need is just there, no hunting around for things. In my opinion iOS has been lagging behind for a while, will be interesting to see what comes along with the iPhone 5.