5 things to know when buying a tablet or smartphone
Adam Carter, CBC News
Posted: Mar 7, 2012 10:59 AM ET
Last Updated: Mar 7, 2012 11:45 AM ET
Technology formats rise and fall — cassette tapes lost the battle to CDs, for example, and CDs are now losing ground to downloads. But tech watchers say there may be no clear winner in the war raging among the operating systems for smartphones and tablets, because of what the different platforms offer to consumers.
This means consumers have some tricky choices to make about whether devices based on Apple, Android or RIM software is going to best meet their particular needs.
The competition for tablet and smartphone market share boils down to two main platform philosophies: open-source and proprietary.
The most widespread open source operating system (OS) for mobile devices is Google's Android platform. Various manufacturers build a range of phones and tablets based on the operating system, and Android is a "collaborative model," which means the OS source code is available to users and developers to massage and use as they wish. Essentially, it allows users and developers a greater amount of freedom to create hardware and apps and distribute them.
Closed source, or proprietary, operating systems are what are used by Apple and BlackBerry devices. In this scenario, the parent company designs the hardware and operating system and keeps the source code tight to the vest. Users can't modify it, and app developers are subject to guidelines governing what they can and can't build.
What's the better choice?
There are pros and cons for each system – both for developers and consumers.
"Everything is best for something and worse for something else," said Daniel Wigdor, assistant professor in the computer science department at the University of Toronto.
Wigdor, who worked with Microsoft's Windows phone team, said both open source and proprietary platforms have their place in the current mobile market, because they offer different things to developers and consumers. "There's definitely room for both," he said.
Apple's devices tend to be more costly than competing Android products, for example, but come with a high degree of oversight from the parent company. Krista Napier, senior analyst and tracker lead for mobility with IDC Canada, said the oversight exists so that Apple can exert extensive quality control.The Kindle Fire is a smaller tablet that runs a highly modified version of Google's Android operating system. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
"It's there for a purpose – to try to manage the experience for the user," Napier said.
"The Apple model is better if the consumer experience you want to have is of a high quality, though [it's] expensive," Wigdor agrees.
The flip-side, he points out, is that "Android isn't as premium, but it can be lower cost."
Apple has complete control over its mobile devices, both iPad and iPhone, from the design of the hardware through to the guidelines for the software applications that run on it. This means that should a user have a problem with an app, they deal with Apple directly for support. On an Android device, they would have to deal with the developer itself – which may or may not have a well-rounded customer service department.
Though there may be a less-stringent quality control system for Android devices and applications, Napier said there are more options available for consumers should they choose Android hardware, because the developers have more freedom to use a mix of technology. A number of Android phones and tablets have micro SD slots, HDMI ports, micro USB and Flash support, for example, which the Apple closed platform doesn't currently offer.
"For someone looking to use the device for work, having features like HDMI could be really valuable," Napier said.
Creativity versus constraint
But while the choice represented by more open platforms is great for consumers, it can cause headaches for developers.
Chad Jones, CEO of app maker College Mobile, said the wide array of features that may or may not be found on an Android device can make things more complicated for programmers trying to build apps that will run properly on the open source platform.
"When we develop for Android, it's a very fragmented market," Jones, a former Apple employee, said. "You never know what you're going to get – you don't know if it'll have a camera, or the size of the screen."The iPad runs Apple's fine-tuned closed source iOs operating system. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)
In contrast, Apple's vision is to have a standard to which developers have to conform. It limits what they can do, but also means developers know the precise configuration of the hardware and software platform they're building an app for.
"The open source model is very free and you can do what you want – but then the downside is that you have no idea what the guy on the other side is doing," Jones said.
He added that development can be easier for Apple's system as you only have to test for one standard, while on an Android device there are far more variables to consider because of its wide-open nature.
"When we develop an Android application, we only promise that it will work with 90 per cent of [Android products on] the market," he said. "We know that there are devices out there it won't work on, because there's so many."
Testing constraints aside, Jones said he can do things on an open source operating system that he can't on one that's closed – like making a payment system for a specific Android app, something that wouldn't fly on a closed system without oversight.
"On Android you're a lot more free, in that you can do a bunch of weird stuff," he said. "You have access to a lot more of the system, it's not as locked down."
Research in Motion has a proprietary operating system and hardware, but falls somewhere in between Android and Apple in terms of its open-source philosophy. RIM controls the design of its phones and its operating system, but has open source application development tools to give app writers flexibility. It has also invited third-party developers to provide input and "share in the evolution of the web platform."
Another consideration is security, which is often at the forefront of users' minds. Experts say proprietary systems tend to be more secure. Open source versions of applications can be more prone to viruses, for example, because of decreased oversight of phone and app designs.
And the control inherent in a proprietary system may constrain the creativity of developers and users, but it also safeguards against malicious intent.
For example, while Apple controls what goes into its online store, the Android app store doesn't have the same oversight. Should a user create an app coupled with a virus and place it on the Android app store, other people could download it before someone realized there was a problem. In contrast, Apple checks apps going into its store and could reject a problematic app.
What's the future?The Samsung Galaxy runs the Android operating system. Its wide open nature lets developers experiment with app design in a way not possible on proprietary systems. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)
The availability and selection of apps is a consideration for people buying a smartphone or tablet, too. Developers want the biggest market for their products, so they develop for the platform they think will give them the biggest return.
Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., told CBC News she believes Apple's proprietary system will continue to dominate the application market because developers are making apps for Apple's system (iOS) first, Android second and very rarely for BlackBerry.
"We'll see that iOs will stay as the industry standard, but Android is encroaching on that for sure," Matrix said.
Napier said she thinks both operating systems will coexist for the conceivable future.
"Apple is a leader and I don't see them moving away from their closed platform anytime soon," she said. "On the other hand, Android has done a very impressive job of competing and stealing some market share away from Apple."
Market share isn't the only variable, though. Jones said demographically, Android users are generally inclined to not buy apps as often, which influences developer interest — a big part of the popularity Apple's closed system enjoys. "The iPad app store makes way more money than Android," he said. "And most of the Android apps are free."
"As a developer, would I rather build an app for the iPhone where I'm going to make the most money, or am I going to do it on Android for free and just maybe get some advertising revenue?
"You're almost guaranteed to make more money on iPhone, and that's the deal breaker."
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