The Ultimate Smartphone Shootout – Symbian vs Android vs Windows Mobile vs BlackBerry vs iPhone

Ok, so you want to buy a smartphone. Great choice. Modern smartphones gives you robust email integration, great organization capabilities (notes, calendars et all), great internet browsing experience, and above all, great extensibility through applications. They are mini personal computers that you can carry around in your pocket.

Now, the next question is, which one ? The engine behind a smartphone is its Operating System (OS). This presents you with 5 great choices, each with its own pros and cons.

First lets see a few charts to set the context:

Symbian is the most popular operating system with about 40% share in all handsets sold (as of Q2, 2010). RIM (BlackBerry), Android and iPhone OS follow behind with about 20% share each.

Market share of Smartphone Operating Systems

Market share of Smartphone Operating Systems (Source: Gartner, August 2010)

Yet, the developer ecosystems of iPhoneOS and Android are much more active. iPhone OS has the most apps available for it – over 200,000, while Android is second with over 70,000 apps (as of Q2 2010). Such a large range of app availability means that you are never short of new things to do with on these smartphones.

Number of Apps Available in App Stores

Number of Apps Available in App Stores (Source: Mobile Developer Economics, 2010 and Beyond)

Ok, now that the figures are out of the way, lets hit the road and consider each OS on the 2 most important parameters – user interface (how does the OS ‘feel’), and application availability (i.e. how many applications are available to extend the functionality of the phone – think news, social networking, dictionaries, productivity and other apps).

User interface is more important for most users, so it will be ranked on a scale of 10, while application availability will be ranked on a scale of 5. The sum of these two scores will be the final score for each OS.

Please note that we are only considering the operating systems for touch screens (which form a majority of the smartphones these days) – in fact, operating systems such as iOS (iPhone OS) and Android are designed only for touch screens.

Now, lets look at each OS in detail. If you are interested in only the final scores, skip to the bottom of this article.


The oldest smartphone operating system. If you have owned a Nokia smartphone, you are probably familiar with this OS.

Symbian was earlier a separate company but was acquired by Nokia in 2008. Today virtually all Nokia smartphones as well as some of the smartphones from the likes of Sony Ericsson, Samsung and LG are based on this OS. Lets rank it on the important parameters

User Interface (for Symbian S60) : 6/10

How do we put this ? As far as touchscreen phones are concerned, Symbian is robust and reliable, but its not really quite as intuitive as Android or iPhone OS.

Things which would require a 1-2 taps on Android tend to require 3-4 on Symbian with its often redundant sub menus. Still, its pretty solid, and doesn’t take much time to get used to.

Here is a look at the Nokia X6, based on the Symbian S60 Fifth Edition.

User Interface (for Symbian 3) : 7/10

The new version of Symbian – Symbian 3 – available in the newer Nokia smartphones including N8 – revamps the ageing OS a bit, and improves the user interface, bringing in multiple personalized home-screens, pinch to zoom functionality etc, but still falls short of the more modern operating systems like Android in terms of intuitiveness.

Here is a look at Nokia N8, based on Symbian 3.

Application Availability : 2.5/5

Being the oldest among the big smartphone platforms (and the most popular), there is a decent variety of applications available for Symbian. The new Ovi Store makes it easy to browse and download apps straight on your Nokia smartphone. And a renewed push to the developer ecosystem (including introduction of carrier billing in several countries) indicates that Nokia is prepared to give a good fight in the face of hard competition.

That said, however, the variety of applications, currently available, still falls way short when compared to Android or iPhoneOS (see chart).


Anything from the house of Google is bound to generate hype and interest, so in a sense Android was always destined to be successful. But it would be this successful, not many imagined. With great overall performance, and simple, sensible functionality that is the hallmark of virtually all Google products, Android has caught on the imagination of mobile manufacturers like no other OS.

User Interface : 9/10

Android interfaces by the likes of HTC and Sony Ericsson have been praised unanimously as being beautiful and intuitive. Even the plain vanilla interface adopted by some manufacturers is pretty good, and makes up for its lack of flair with simplicity of use.

So Android gets a clear thumbs up here. It would have been foolish to expect anything else from Google anyway – they are great at designing brilliantly usable interfaces.

Here is a video demo of HTC Desire, running on Android.

Application Availability : 4/5

So far the only platform to come even remotely close to challenging the number and variety of apps on iPhone OS, the Android application market has grown by leaps and bounds ever since its release. In fact it gets a leg up on the iPhone app store in terms of the ratio of free applications to paid applications.

Free vs Paid Apps

Free vs Paid Apps (Source: Distimo Report, Jun 2010)

In fact some of the really good apps for Android are those already on the phone and created by Google itself – the troika of Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Maps, are brilliantly designed and sync flawlessly with your online accounts.

For instance, all your phone contacts are synced with your Gmail contacts, in effect you always have a backup of your phone contacts in your Gmail account, so absolutely no worries on that account, if your phone ever gets lost or stolen.

Windows Mobile 6.5

The mobile OS by Microsoft has been a decent, robust choice for business phones. Although often criticized for a dull interface, recent phones by the likes of HTC have managed to, at least partially, turn that perception on its head, with slick and intuitive interfaces built on top of the Windows Mobile platform.

User Interface : 6/10

Although the Windows interface brings with it robustness, it still fails to match up to the best in class in terms of easy of use.

Here is a look at the Samsung Omnia 2 with Windows Mobile

Application Availability : 3/5

Like Symbian, Windows Mobile has fallen way behind in the app race, even with its head start. Still it has a decent app variety backing it up, and the Windows Market Place provides an easy way to download and install apps.

Of course, one great thing is that Windows Mobile also packs Office mobile, which means you have reading/editing documents, spreadsheets and presentation straight out-of-the-box, which is obviously great if you need access to such files on your mobile.

Windows Phone 7

The most anticipated development in the smartphone market in recent times has been the launch of the new version of the mobile OS from Microsoft. Called ‘Windows Phone 7?, its beautifully designed, and radically new interface has impressed one and all with its focus and simplicity of use. It represents a fresh start for Microsoft in this domain, and the initial reviews indicate that they are right on target.

User Interface : 9/10

Introducing new elements such as ‘live tiles’ (links to applications and features that are dynamic and update in real time – for example, the tile for an email account would display the number of unread messages) and ‘hubs’ (for example, the Pictures hub shows photos captured with the device’s camera and the user’s Facebook photo albums) , Windows Phone takes a new, fresh approach to a smartphone, managing to achieve both functionality and ease-of-use together.

Here is a demo of the Windows 7 User Interface (phones will be commercially launched by the end of 2010):

Application Availability : 2/5

Being a completely new OS, old Windows Mobile apps will not be able to work on the Windows Phone 7. That means the OS has to take a fresh start, and will not have a well loaded app store to begin with. However, Microsoft is pursuing developers aggressively (Twitter, Ebay and IMDB apps have already been developed), and you can expect a lot of action in this space shortly.

BlackBerry OS

The big daddy of business phones – RIM – relies on the sturdy BlackBerry OS to power its handsets. Its strength, like that of the Symbian OS, is more in its robustness, than ease of use.

User Interface (BlackBerry OS 5) : 6/10

Like the Symbian interface, BlackBerry OS is smart, and gets work done, but not as fast, or as intuitively as Android or iPhone OS.

Here is a look at the BlackBerry OS 5 user interface on the BlackBerry Storm 2

User Interface (BlackBerry OS 6) : 7/10

The new version of the BlackBerry OS is a significant upgrade – with a more functional home-screen, social feed apps, a better browser and a more touch-friendly interface in general. BlackBerry Torch is the first phone to utilize it so far, and more phones will be launched shortly.

Here is a look at the new user interface on BlackBerry Torch.

Application Availability : 2.5/5

Again app availaibility is not as great as some other operating systems. But you will certainly find all the major apps there (no serious developer would give the BlackBerry a miss, with its lucrative business consumers). The BlackBerry App World provides easy access to these apps.

Like Windows mobile OS, BlackBerry also usually packs capability for reading/editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations straight out-of-the-box, catering to its major market of business users.

iPhone OS (iOS)

The iPhone was that one revolutionary device that changed the way we looks at phones. Forever. Never had the simple phone been transformed into something so brilliant, and so beautiful.

User Interface : 9/10

Apple is the expert at designing beautiful and intuitive interfaces, and they hit the jackpot again with the iPhoneOS. Successive versions have improved usability even further. Really you have to use the iPhone to grasp the beauty of the software.

Here is a look at the iPhone 4 user interface.

Application Availability : 4.5/5

With the highest number of apps amongst any app store, Apple is the clear leader and offers an astounding choice of apps to iPhone users (see chart). There is an app literally for everything! News, reference, sports, weather, shopping, tv, movies, games, notes, organizers, social networking – virtually every possible category is loaded with hundreds of apps.

Final Scores

Here is a look at final scores.

Operating System
User Interface
(On Scale of 10)
Application Availability
(On Scale of 5)
(On Scale of 15)
iPhone OS 9 4.5 13.5
Android 9 4 13
Windows Phone 7 9 2 11
Symbian 3 7 2.5 9.5
BlackBerry OS 6 7 2.5 9.5
Windows Mobile 6.5 6 3 9
Symbian S60 6 2.5 8.5
BlackBerry OS 5 6 2.5 8.5

The iPhone OS and Android emerge out as the clear winners. Its tough to decide between them, but you can’t go wrong with either of those two. They are both intuitive and well designed. Windows Phone 7 is the new kid on the block to watch out for. It presents a completely fresh, new interface that is great at getting things done quickly, and should appeal to a large segment of users looking for no-nonsense phones.

BlackBerry and Symbian are solid operating systems in their own right, and have large (and loyal) user bases. But in an objective analysis they tend to fall behind a little when compared to the best-in-class. They will need to ramp up their game a bit (which they do seem to be doing with their latest versions), to stay among the top contenders in the long term.

On the whole though, this is an exciting time to buy a smartphone, with a large variety of good products to choose from. And as the competition heats up further, continue to expect a lot more action in this space.
[Reproduced from the PhoneCurry Blog; PhoneCurry is a website that helps Indians decide which phone to buy ]

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