The term 'smartphone' has been bandied about for over a decade now, but where it previously meant a horrible, clunky experience, and often the need for an unwieldy stylus, the new generation is more akin to something out of Star Trek.
Everyone has one, and the user interfaces and applications are only getting better.
Apple struck first with the launch of the iPhone, creating the expectation of a slick, touch-based experience. It blew away the competition by simply working as users wanted, which says a lot about the systems that came before.
However, it took rivals years to catch up, and not until Google jumped into the mobile space with its Android OS has it really found a challenger worth its time to fight.
The champion – iOS 4
The strength of Apple's iOS is its professional feel – anyone can pick up a device running the platform and in a few finger strokes, be playing a game or taking a picture.
While developed for the iPhone originally, it also made it to the iPod touch, and now there's a whole family of products using it, most notably the iPad.
iOS 4 adds in a whole new host of features to the Apple family, with the headline-grabbers being multi-tasking and folder organisation of your icons.
The former is a big step forward for Apple, never mind how many people have complained about its absence before, allowing users to keep applications running in the background without forcing them to shut down, which was a constant source of frustration.
Importantly, though, it's not 'true' multi-tasking. Only optimised third-party applications will be able to stay open, so if a developer hasn't submitted an updated version of its program to Apple, the app will still shut down when you press the Home button. Apple says that this is to save battery and system resources, and the 40 per cent longer battery life on the iPhone 4 certainly corroborates this claim.
Folder organisation is a big step forward too, allowing users to shrink the amount of home screens needed. If you have 160 apps, previously you'd have had 10 screens to flick through. The new approach is simple to use: long-press on an icon and drop it onto another one and a folder is automatically created. Your device will auto-name the folder, but you can change it if you want.
iBooks is another key addition, meaning full-length eBooks can be downloaded from Apple, without the need to search through other online stores. iBooks is clearly successful, given that eBooks are already the most downloaded item from Apple's online portal.
There are limitations with iOS 4 though. The lack of Flash in the web browser is still a problem. Apple chief Steve Jobs thinks that HTML 5 is the way to go and that Flash video drains the battery too much, but other platforms, such as Android 2.2, seem to manage it with aplomb.
Also, using iOS 4 on older devices seems to be a no-no. Users of the old iPhone 3Gs are claiming that their handsets have been slowed down by installing it.
The contender – Android 2.2
When Google jumped into the smartphone OS game, the key thing was teaming up with the right people, and in HTC it found a decent ally. The Taiwanese phone manufacturer helped craft the first Google-powered phone, the T-Mobile G1, and has been instrumental in creating some of the top Android phones since then.
In Android 2.2,also known as Froyo, the smartphone platform has moved out of development phase into a ready-for-mainstream product. The main improvements in the new release are apparent from the first time you use a Froyo-powered device: the speed at which it works under the finger is terrific, thanks to some clever improvements to the base code.
This basically means it can run apps up to five times faster, and browse the web three times faster. This speed upgrade means the stress on the battery is lower too – earlier Android handsets have notoriously struggled to keep up decent battery performance, but with Android 2.2 on board, they can easily last the day.
Cocking a snook to Apple, all phones running Android 2.2 can now run Flash natively, so when you're browsing the web and you encounter a video, you simply need to tap it and the online movie starts up. It's not perfect, but on the whole, it's great being able to watch videos without having to jump out to a separate application.
The other impressive feature in Android 2.2 is the ability to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Simply activate the feature and you can share your smartphone data with other devices. Ironically, this is likely to be popular with Wi-Fi only iPad users, so in adding this feature, Google is technically doing Apple a favour.
Both iOS 4 and Android 2.2 are cutting-edge platforms, adding impressive functionality with the right kind of backend stuff that makes devices running the systems a breeze to use. It's difficult to recommend one over the other, given that both are slick and well-formed, so make your own choice and enjoy the fact that smartphone systems are becoming free of those 'work, damn it!' moments.
First published in PC Plus Issue 300
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