Mobile Operating Systems: Good, But Not Quite Good Enough?

At the time of writing, Apple has recently released iOS 7, an update to its mobile operating system which radically changes the user interface of the iPhone and iPad models on which it runs, along with a host of technical changes that represent a significant jump in performance and technical sophistication. Among these technical changes is the adoption of full multitasking, a clear and perplexing omission from previous iOS versions, especially when the underlying operating system architecture manifestly had no problems with multitasking in general. Android has reached version 4.3, rising from its inauspicious roots to become the most popular smartphone operating system in the world. These two operating systems represent almost all of the smartphone market, with some minor competition from Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS.

Between the two operating systems, the ecosystem of most mobile devices has been moulded and shaped. Both systems work in broadly similar ways, with icon-packed home screens linking into apps, which are generally there to do a single, narrowly defined task, such as playing films, updating your Facebook or Twitter status or delivering some internet-linked content to the device. These applications are typically downloaded from the respective app stores of the two operating systems and are represented in encapsulated forms in which the inner workings are concealed. The same principle of encapsulation applies to the user interface and the operating environment in general; without unsupported “jailbreaking” or rooting, the underlying structure of the operating system is tucked away out of the user’s reach.

It is therefore clear that the Android or iOS smartphone is set up very much as a device, which is a very comfortable environment for the general end-user. Such a layout for an operating environment lends itself well to reliability and ease-of-use, both features which are favourable in a device designed for most users. From this aspect, Android and iOS can be said to have succeeded.

The problem, though, is that I am not a general end-user. I like to explore operating systems, to exploit their potential more heavily than most users and I am willing to give up a bit of reliability and ease of use in the process. The rise of Android and iOS at the expense of all of their competitors gives me a strange feeling of dejà vu; it feels very similar to the rise of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS in the 1990s, but with more restrictive, more limited operating systems.

I own an iOS device, a fourth-generation iPod Touch with iOS 6.1.3. As such, I’m not completely turned off by the nature of iOS or Android. However, I use my iPod Touch almost entirely as a music player, occasionally using the internet on it. I rarely use apps outside of the pre-installed applications; most apps appear to me to be doing things which could just as adequately be done on the internet itself, without having the encapsulation provided by the app. This is rather disappointing for a device which could just as well be used as a general-purpose computer.

When I say that smartphones have sufficient power to be used for general-purpose computing, I’m not being glib or exaggerating; I own at least one desktop which is less powerful than the smartphones currently on the market, and I had no particular problems with processing power when I was running programs on it back when I was using it as my primary desktop. Strangling the capabilities of multi-core smartphone processors with a set of apps which work by themselves in a vacuum just seems to me to be a waste of processing potential, let alone unimaginative and lacking in innovation.

What I want, therefore, is a third choice, away from the relatively closed platforms of Android and iOS. I want an operating system in which applications can and do work together. I want an operating system in which I can program applications natively on the hardware itself without having to use a bloated, slow API on a desktop. What I want, in effect, is something along the lines of a desktop Linux transplanted onto a smartphone or tablet environment… wait, wasn’t that done before? Of course it was, by Nokia officially with the Maemo distribution, along with a whole host of unofficial ports of Linux to PDA and smartphone hardware.

The most recent large-scale attempt at a Linux transplant onto a smartphone environment is Ubuntu Phone. I’m not sure how this holds up to something like Maemo, which was effectively Debian GNU/Linux transplanted onto a mobile ARM platform, but it appears that Ubuntu Phone is the closest high-profile operating system to what I want out of a smartphone. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put money on any major hardware developer going with Ubuntu Phone officially; there’s too much demand for Android and iOS to risk that strategy for a minority of technically-minded enthusiasts like me.

In the end, though, I can understand where Apple and Google are coming from as they direct iOS and Android towards a sort of user with little interest or enthusiasm for exploiting the underlying hardware of their phones. At the same time, though, I think that such operating systems waste the hardware that they run on; surely, with such limited capabilities compared to desktop operating systems which do so much more, you shouldn’t need a dual-core or quad-core ARM processor with clock rates in excess of 1 GHz (and in some cases, exceeding 2GHz!). I’m also not content with living with such limited capabilities when devices are so fast, and therefore, if I upgrade my smartphone, I’ll probably be shoehorning some sort of desktop transplant Linux onto it.

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Some long-time readers may remember my advocacy for Symbian back when it was still at the head of the smartphone market. Ultimately, Symbian does little more to allow the user to hack at its internals than Android or iOS, and certainly doesn’t have any capacity for development on board the actual device. However, considering the complaints that many people had when comparing Symbian to iOS or Android, Symbian still compared favourably when considering the underlying architecture of view to these two operating systems. Full multitasking was available on Symbian even as far back as its origination as EPOC on Psion devices, whereas iOS has only acquired this with iOS 7.

I still use my Nokia E71, despite its obsolete operating system, and I use it for a broader range of tasks than my iPod Touch, which has a considerably newer operating system which should be superior. However, my Nokia E71 still suffices for internet use and for manipulating office documents, the most common tasks which I have used the phone for since I got it. The battery life is considerably superior to that of large-screened touchscreen smartphones which have dominated; the hardware keyboard is more comfortable and quicker for writing anything, from Facebook messages to full-scale essays. Since, aside from the outlying case of Ubuntu Phone and other unofficial Linux ports, I haven’t seen enough of a jump in potential to justify upgrading my smartphone, I’ll stick with the Nokia E71 for now and hope that somebody takes the risk to provide an officially-supported Linux that isn’t unnecessarily restricted.