17 January 2011

Smart Phones, Tablets and Choices

If you don't already own a smart phone, then there is a good chance that you are considering buying one this year. You have probably heard of tablets, like for example the Apple iPad, and no doubt there will be many more of these small lifestyle companions popping up around the place in 2011. Apple devices are a major hit but Android powered devices have already surpassed them in market-share. Also, with offerings like Windows Phone 7, Blackberry and Nokia's Symbian, it isn't immediately obvious which to choose. I hope this series of posts can help.

Smart Phones and Tablets

Compared to ten years ago, even your typical feature-phone of today is quite smart. Today's smart phones, however, are in quite a different league and with an always on 3G Internet connection they have the potential to be your main point of contact with the connected world. They typically range in screen size from about 2.5 to 4 inches.

Tablets are big smart phones. Sometimes without 3G connectivity, but always with at least a WiFi connection. You can typically do anything you can do on a smart phone on a tablet, but with the added benefit of a larger screen.

So, what makes a smart phone or tablet? The feature list beyond a feature phone typically is:

  • A touch screen
  • Built in Internet connectivity through Wifi and/or 3G
  • Ability to install third party applications, or "Apps"
  • A GPS for figuring out where in the world you are
  • Enough CPU and memory to run sophisticated apps


Apps Make The Phone

When your computer arrived you probably had to install an accounting package, or something to manage your photo collection, or maybe something educational for the kids. In this same way, it is impossible for any single device manufacturer to produce a smart phone or tablet with all the software you could possibly want.

For example, Angry Birds is a really popular iOS and Android game, but not everyone plays games. A keen golfer would love an app like GPS Caddy that tells you how far you hit the ball and how far to the green. Not much point for the non-golfer though.

A device that a lot of talented developers can create useful and innovative apps for is a device that will surprise and serve you well whatever your needs.

Operating Systems

Just like a computer, a smart phone or tablet has an operating system. This is the software that powers the device and allows you to install third party apps, synchronise to your computer and generally controls the user experience. Three of the major operating systems are iOS, Android and Symbian.

iOS is Apple's mobile operating system employed on the iPhone and the iPad. It is a very well featured operating system based on UNIX. The operating system is developed by Apple and is only available on Apple products. Third party apps are made available through the iTunes App Store. Developers submit their apps for inclusion into the App Store and Apple decides whether or not to make that app available to users. Apps can be free or developers can choose to charge for them.

Android was created and is guided in its development by Google. It is, however, an open source project which is free to use, modify and distribute. This means that any manufacturer is free to ship a device running Android. To date, there are many handsets from HTC, Samsung, Sony, LG, Acer, Motorola and various obscure manufacturers creating devices running the Android operating system. Most devices come with access to the Android Market which contains third party applications. Developers may distribute their applications through this market or via other means directly to users. There are no restrictions on who gets to write and distribute apps for Android.

Symbian didn't start off as an open source project but it now is. The only manufacturer of note currently shipping modern Symbian devices is Nokia. Over the years its market share has been declining and it has been losing ground to Android and iOS. The platform itself does not offer anything that compels one to choose it over Android, and given the declining market share, limited number of new handset offerings and smaller developer community, I do not recommend it nor will I further discuss it.

OS Manufacturers App choice Market Share
(3Q 2010)
Market Share
(3Q 2009)
Android HTC, Motorola, Sony, LG, Samsung, and more... Open 25.5% 3.5%
iOS Only Apple devices Apple decides 16.7% 17.1%
Symbian Open but only Nokia using Open 36.6% 44.6%

Stay tuned for another post on this topic. Leave a comment below if there is a specific question or concern you would like to see addressed.