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.



Just a couple of notes about the article:


iOS doesn't only support the onscreen keyboard, it supports bluetooth keyboards too; updates are no longer solely delivered through iTunes (iOS5 includes over the air updates); "easiest OS for new users to pick up" & "first platform developers produce apps for" may be valid, but should really be referenced; careful about calling Siri a killer feature of iOS - it's (currently) a feature of the iPhone 4S - not available on the newest iPad and iPod Touch both running iOS5.


You may want to update the comparison chart to refelect the fact that alternative app stores are available for Android.


The article was an interesting read, I hope it will help new customers when choosing their new smartphone.


I have the HTC Titan and, seriously, my only complaint is the smaller number of apps, but this will grow, and it is growing as we speak. The reason I like WP7.5 is that it has the slickest UI of the lot and is good to go out the box with So-net built-in. Android is a little clunky, in my opinion, and iOS needs a revamp....But horses for courses, these 3 all deliver fairly similar experiences.


I have the Nexus S with Android 4 and I love its simplicity.


Also had an ipod touch and loved its simplicity but I could do so little with it (no widgets or anything) compared to general Android.


But I love Android 4 now, wouldn't want any phone without it, so easy and smooth to use, looks brilliant and of course you can do everything you need to with Android but a lot more easily with Android 4. This particular OS update (Android 4) makes Android a much greater contender now than ever


Having tried iOS, Android and Windows Phone, and not only being prepared to like and accept them, but expecting to jump ship to one of them at various times, and keeping going back and checking on all of them from time to time, every time I come away convinced that Nokia Symbian is the only mobile operating system I want any phone of mine to be running.


It's the original (Nokia invented the smartphone) and easily the best. The fact people get misled by a slightly slow user interface and 2 or 3 poor default apps (web, email) is sad, because beyond and behind that something like the N8 is an amazing thing, and indeed the N8 for me is still easily the best phone of any sort on the planet. The OS is just SO much better than anything else out there, so much more efficient, so much more capable, feature rich, stable, reliable. And the hardware is head and shoulders, a country mile, beyond anything else available.


The only thing to replace that will be the Symbian based N8 successor due later in the year (summer I believe).


Do I want the slickest quickest UI, or the best phone, multimedia device, and pocket computer? Well actually I can have the latter and get the former too as the Belle update free for Symbian owners will give me everything. And to date the price of a slightly clunky UI in return for the best OS and hardware, has been more than worth paying with my N8.


And by the way, don't get me wrong, I think iPhone, Android and Windows Phone are just as good as people say they are. It's just that Symbian on the N8 is STILL better than that. That's how good it is.


I admire iOS but I use Android, because it is open to any hardware producer, offers a decent and a wide range of much lower cost options - plus I can buy a smartpphone with a different screen size than Apple's "one size for all eyesights and hand sizes" approach.


That said I think iOS probably provides a slightly slicker user experience for the uninitiated.


Nice article BTW.

head honcho

nice post however you have forgoten the huawei Blaze on the budget bit of your review, still prefer the android is the best one for my simple needs..


Honestly, if you ever get the chance, try getting Android 4 (with Cyanogenmod for example). I find myself using my phone to create forlers or other random things with the UI because Android 4's just so beautiful


Good article, thanks.


Here's my twopenn'orth, for what it's worth (.....2d maybe ??...or 2p to younger posters)   


I've used Android, Eclair up to Gingerbread 2.3.5, and always found it buggy, with lots of force close errors, to the extent that I would not buy another Android phone. iOS on the other hand has always been stable for me.  I personally would rather have stability, I'm not too fussed about slickness.  I don't care much for monopolies, so Apple isn't my best friend, but as it stands I'd rather go with Apple than Google.


Having used mainly Symbian phones (I'm a nokia fangirl) I was advenurous when I bought a iPhone 3GS when it came out, needless to say I went back to my trusted "bricks" owning a Blackberry until 10 days ago.


I've had my android phone 10 days and I can put my hand on my heart and say I would be lost without it. it's simply amazing, so much to download and my battery life isn't as bad as I thought it would be. Just wish there was more 3D enabled content, all my phone is good for at the minute is playing with the camera.

android all the way 4 me Smiley Happy