Mobile operating systems, like desktop operating systems have to be updated from time to time. Of course, mobile development needs to be faster because of all the competition. Major versions are released every so often and incremental updates with bug fixes are released throughout the year.
The major players right now are iOS, webOS (which we had hopes for), Android, Windows and BlackBerry.
The iPhone and iOS
Apple has always seen the iPhone as a hardware plus software device. The idea was that a lot key functions/features could be replaced by software. For instance, the keyboard. No physical keyboard seemed crazy at first, but many of us got used to it and it’s pretty normal these days to see a smartphone with no physical keyboard. Android is paying the price when it comes to physical buttons as they have tried going with software buttons and it definitely has an effect on existing apps. That was pointed out a while back.
The iPhone also had visual voicemail (VVM). We all remember a time when we’d receive a VM and have to call a number on our phone then go through messages one at a time just to hear our most recent. VVM was all seen within the software interface, and you could quickly skip to the message you wanted to hear.
Most recently, we saw that Apple dedicated an entire developers conference to software. WWDC, an event usually reserved for the iPhone unveiling, was this time used to announce the new features of iOS 5 and iCloud. Even the iPhone 4S was heavily software focused. Yes, under the hood there are differences, but the design remains like the iPhone 4. The major selling point is Siri, which is a software solution, not a new piece of hardware or a pretty new design.
Apple works around the clock to ensure that iOS is rolling. Much of that thanks to Scott Forstall, who is said to be a tough boss. Sometimes that’s just what it takes to get things done. It’s clear form the chart above that Apple looks at software as most important part of the iDevice ecosystem, just look at the releases, the schedule is relentless and remains constant.
Android does some things very well, but their main problem has always been fragmentation. Admittedly, it’s something that Google has tried to fix over the years. Unfortunately, the problem comes down the chain. Updates are released at the discretion of the manufacturer. This is also because most of them don’t use what we’d call a “vanilla” or standard version of Android.
With many of the available phones, your chances of getting a software update are very slim, so you may actually end up stuck with no chance at getting new software. Have a look at this chart by The Understatement. It shows software update support on the iPhone vs many popular Android devices. Many devices get left behind with the software revisions.
Look at the chart once again. You will see that updates were fairly inconsistent until version 3, when they began to increase the frequency of their updates.
We’ve written many times about webOS in the past. It was always a great mobile OS and it did a lot of things right. Unfortunately, Palm couldn’t hold up and HP picked them up. What came out the gate strong quickly became…well, whatever it is now. HP doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the mobile thing yet. We can see this at times when one of the many great innovations of webOS was going to be some HP printers. Really? Okay, so maybe a webOS printer can be cool in the larger scheme of things, but why not build an ecosystem around it first? That’s what the HP TouchPad and their phone were supposed to do. Too bad the TouchPad was killed like 10 minutes after they launched it. Referring back to the chart, webOS launched on a mission to be the best mobile operating system around. Then they suddenly lost steam around mid-2010.
Microsoft is still a newcomer with their Windows Phone OS. Updates are still slow, but we figure that all we have to do is give it time. We can’t say too much yet, but based on what we have seen, it’s a positive experience. We also think it’s brilliant to integrate it with people’s Xbox LIVE accounts. This is an instant win for those who love their Xbox.
If there is really a criticism for them it’s that they need to pick up the pace. They obviously know that software is key (it’s what their business is built on). Keep up the pace and update frequently. Give people what they need in a mobile OS and it will catch on.
BlackBerry OS. That’s just something else right now. If you look at the chart above, you will see that we named various BlackBerry devices. This is because the different devices have different versions of the OS. It’s a development nightmare. Each device has a different interface (some touchscreen, others physical keyboards, others keypads) and each requires an OS.
The Mobile Update Cycle
iOS so far has a constant update cycle. It’s a good way to keep things going and to keep up with competitors. A new version of iOS is introduced yearly, alongside a new iPhone. Those updates are major, and there are smaller, incremental updates (minor bug fixes, etc) that come with each version of iOS. They are released in a way that lets users of older handsets keep their iPhones for a while. Sure, there may be times when it seems like iOS is behind (folders, multitasking, etc) but in the end, it tends to work out nicely because users can count on getting an update.
Finally, software is key. These days software is definitely a deciding factor. Take a quick look at the iPhone 4 and a rival smartphone. Hardware-wise, the iPhone 4 may seem like baby stuff in comparison (it’s a year old). But because the software is developed to work with the hardware (not the other way around) we have a phone that can still hold its own against the competition. Frequent releases and updates are key in the mobile software race. Apple had that from day one. Android is catching up, and their recent release schedule shows that they “get it” as far as updates go, but RIM and all the other guys are still lagging way behind.