On the go – Android, iOS and Windows

OnTheGoMobile operating systems are everywhere yet there’s only a handful to choose between. Here, we explore their benefits and look at what makes each one different

Smartphones as a concept need no introduction. The chances are you have one in your pocket right now, and if you don’t yet you soon will: smartphone shipments are expected to reach 1.9 billion by 2019 – one in three people in the entire world will have one, in other words.

What you may not realise however is that the software inside your smartphone will likely be in even more devices than that. You probably know the make and model of your phone, but do you know what software or what operating system it runs? A few key frontrunners have emerged from three technology giants: Apple, Google and Microsoft. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, unique features and target audiences. So to make sure you’re using the right one for you now, as well as in the future, here’s a primer on all three.

iOS (Apple)

‘Revolutionary’ isn’t a word that should be bandied about carelessly, but it would be fair to call Apple’s iOS (iPhone Operating System) software exactly that. The software onboard its iPhones and iPads completely changed the way we interact with technology when launched in 2007. It was iOS that popularised touchscreens, brought us the idea of pinching in and out to zoom, a concept we take for granted today, and showed us that phones could be media players too by having iTunes built in from the start. Jump forward nine years and the concept is the same – a homescreen with tiles for apps – but its scope has expanded to cover tablets, laptop replacements and TV streaming set-top boxes.

What’s unique about it?
Its simplicity. Because there are only a handful of devices running iOS, developers have found it very easy to create apps that run flawlessly across all of them. That means when new companion devices like the Apple Watch come along, developers jump on board straight away to make great apps for those too. The iTunes App Store is absolutely packed with millions of apps and games to make sure you never get bored, ever. Apple’s Siri voice assistant lets you speak to your iPhone or iPad and ask questions without even having to touch your device. And iOS is by far and away the best mobile platform for mobile video and image editing too, thanks to Apple’s excellent creative suite of software.

And the downside?
Apple keeps total control of its software, including the app download store. While you can replace almost any element of Android you don’t like, you’re mostly stuck with the interface designed by the late Steve Jobs and Apple design guru Sir Jonathan Ive. Consequently iOS is not hugely customisable – many hardcore tech evangelists prefer Android as a result.

Who’s it for?
If you’ve already bought into the Apple eco-system in some way – you own a MacBook, for instance – you’ll be right at home with iOS. It shares many visual similiarities with Apple’s desktop software, but, more importantly, it shares many of the same apps, and those apps share your data between them using the company’s iCloud technology, so you can edit photos on your phone or your desktop, and have your email synced to both.

But iOS isn’t just for those equipped with Macs and iPads and Apple Watches though. It’s a truly modern OS with innovative ideas (security tied to your fingerprint for purchasing everything from apps to Christmas shopping, for instance) that’s extremely easy to understand and use. This is the easiest OS for anyone new to smartphones to understand. It’s also by far and away the best for accessibility, with excellent options for the blind and partially sighted.

What should I buy?
Just remember that all that convenience comes at a cost. Apple is one of the most-profitable companies in the world, and with good reason: it charges a high price for its devices. The iPhone 6s can set you back well over US$1000, even before monthly contract costing, and earlier devices aren’t much cheaper. But for many it’s worth it.

Android (Google)

There are three main modern mobile operating systems in 2016 – Android was the second to launch in 2008 just months after the arrival of iOS on the first iPhone. Despite Apple’s headstart, Android quickly slingshotted into first position by virtue of its availability – any manufacturer can use it, even alter it, for free. As a result, more than a billion Android phones and tablets are now shipped around the world each and every year.

What’s unique about it?
Though at a glance its interface and controls are similar to iOS, its core selling point early on was that it was open source, meaning any developer could add to it.

The distinction isn’t quite so clear these days – the Android available on most smartphones is not actually open source, and is vetted thoroughly by Google – but you’ll find you have a much greater degree of control over the OS, if you know what you’re doing. You can install any app you like, even if it’s not approved for sale on the Google Play app store, some of which offer live updating ‘widgets’ for your homescreen you won’t find on iOS. Many Android devices can even be easily hacked to run alternative versions of Android that offer different features or better battery life.

Since Android is Google’s baby, it also works well with the search giant’s core services. Gmail and Google Maps are more powerful on Android, sharing data between them. Google’s unique ‘Now’ service, meanwhile, aims to predict what information you need before you even ask for it, letting you know when it’s time to set off for a meeting or reminding you of your booked flights coming up.

Lastly, Android offers the best system of alerts for all your different apps and messages, in an easy to use pull down ‘notification shade’ accessible from any screen. It’s a painless and often overlooked selling point for anyone who relies on lots of different services to stay in touch.

And the downside?
Android has many apps, but you can’t always be sure they’ll run on your device (there are more than 24,000 different devices developers must try to support). This fragmentation effect also means you can’t expect regular software updates for Android in the same way that Apple provides for all recent iOS devices – bad news if you want to stay on the cutting edge.

Who’s it for?
If Apple’s iOS is a walled garden, Android is the wide-open frontier. Some people relish the freedom of installing any app they want and being able to sideload files onto their phone like a memory stick without the need to sync to iTunes. Others simply enjoy how much cheaper Android devices are than Apple gadgets.

What should I buy?
If money is no object, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (US$650). It’s a huge, turbocharged device that combines the power and productivity of a tablet with the abilities of a phone. If you’re on a budget, the Motorola Moto E (US$70) offers a fantastic, fast Android experience for very little.

Windows 10 Mobile

Despite Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop with Windows, it’s struggled to capture much of the market for smartphones, though Windows Mobile is actually much older than either iOS or Android. When it became clear that mobile users weren’t interested in complicated menus and error messages on their phones, Microsoft began a huge overhaul, starting with Windows Phone 7 back in 2010. Nowadays it’s a much more friendly OS, with large, finger-friendly tiles and some distinct features all of its own.

What’s unique about it?
In many ways, the Windows 10 Mobile experience combines the tight control of iOS with the customisability of Android. You can tweak and arrange your home-screen in a way not possible on the iPhone, with large tiles that update with info, and it’s available on a range of devices that Apple can’t match for variety. But you’ll also get rapid software updates to make sure your phone stays fully secure and feature packed. Microsoft also owns some of the most important services in IT today, from Office 365 to OneNote and Skype. They can all be found in Windows 10 Mobile, and they work flawlessly.

And the downside?
Though it shares a lot of technology with Windows on your laptop, Windows 10 Mobile does not offer a great number of apps compared to iOS and Android. It’s also as locked down as iOS – bad news for tinkerers.

Who’s it for?
If you know you prefer Windows to Mac and live on Outlook and Office, you’ll enjoy how tightly Microsoft’s services are woven into the OS in Windows 10 Mobile.

What should I buy?
The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL (US$725) has a huge 5.7-inch screen with a 20 megapixel rear camera, as well as a 5mp front-facing snapper for excellent selfies and Skype video chats.

Mobile on TV

Mobile operating systems don’t just power mobile devices. They’re perfect for devices that connect to your television. All three developers – Google, Apple and Microsoft – have made forays into TV set-top boxes that connect to the Internet to stream video, download apps and play games. Apple’s Apple TV runs a variant of iOS called tvOS – developers simply have to tweak their existing iPhone apps to run on a big screen using a remote rather than your fingers. Google’s Android TV software can be found in low-price devices from Asus and Nvidia, the latter of which is even powerful enough to support super high-resolution 4K video over the web from Netflix. Microsoft has a slightly different approach: it’s just brought support for Windows 10 to its Xbox One video games console, meaning it’s never been easier for developers to port their desktop apps to the TV. Each device has its own benefits. Apple’s TV works better if you already have an iPhone to use as a remote, while Android TV devices are cheaper with just as many apps – but neither has as many games as the Xbox One.

Desktop integration

Apple and Microsoft don’t just make mobile operating systems, of course. Windows has been a desktop OS primarily, and Apple’s MacBook computers still use its OS X operating system. Both are more powerful, but primarily reliant on a keyboard and mouse for input. However, with the rise of smartphones, both companies have worked hard to blur the boundaries between the two platforms. With Apple’s Continuity feature, you can answer phone calls incoming on your iPhone directly on your Mac, as well as keep apps open between both platforms. Microsoft has also integrated its core services such as Office 365 and Skype into both, so you can close a document on your laptop and carry on editing it on your phone, and vice versa.

Google does have its own desktop operating system, the cloud-based Chrome OS. Google’s focus though is on being able to access your data anywhere – so you can login and read your Gmail on any computer as well as your phone.

Working with smartwatches

There’s a fresh fight going on in another mobile device: your wrist watch. Both Apple and Google have their own adapted versions of their mobile OS – watchOS and Android Wear respectively – designed to work better on a tiny screen, while Apple also makes its own hardware for it, the Apple Watch. You can debate the pros and cons of both – Apple’s software is more mature with better apps than Android Wear, which is much more focused on notifications rather than interaction – but your choice as to which to go with is limited by the smartphone you have. Apple Watch only works with iPhone, and Android Wear only works with Android.