Android: Third among equals

Google, Apple and Microsoft all have decent mobile operating systems.

Last year I spent a week working exclusively with each. My conclusion is you won’t go far wrong with any of them. All three cover the basics adequately. None of them is perfect and none has a fatal flaw. Each has pluses and minuses.

You many find yourself in one camp almost by accident, if, say, someone gives you an iPhone. It may be a deliberate choice: after researching the market you chose a Surface Pro 3. It could be you work for an organisation that standardises on the Galaxy Tab S.

Once in a camp, your relationship with that world generally deepens. As an iPhone user you may learn to make the most of iOS. You may spend money on apps, store everything in iCloud and generally take on a commitment to Apple’s way of doing things. This works the same with all three operating systems.

While the three operating systems are equal in many senses, there are ways in which they are anything but equal. Android has by far the largest market share, Windows Phone has a tiny market share. There are roughly 25 Android users for every Windows Phone user.

Market share is often overstated. It’s implications are misunderstood More customers doesn’t mean more profit. Android device makers struggle to break even while Apple, on a smaller market share, is highly profitable.

Many developers focus on iOS ahead of Android despite there being fewer users because that’s where there are app sales.

Which brings me to why do I say Android is “third among equals”?

In my work I make a point of working with all three mobile operating systems. I also use Windows 8 and OS X.

While the three mobile operating systems are, to a point, largely functionally equal, Android doesn’t have things nailed down as neatly as Windows or Apple. This is a blessing for some, for most people it’s a problem.

For a start you always know where you are on any Windows or Apple device. That’s just not true on Android. Samsung’s Android user interface is different to LG’s Android and so on. Not all apps run on all variations.

This means that from a usability point of view Android isn’t one thing, it’s many. Where I mentioned earlier about staying in one camp, for Android owners getting all the productivity benefits might mean sticking with Samsung, LG or HTC. Working with one maker’s Android phone and another maker’s Android tablet can be almost as jarring as moving to another operating system entirely.

My second gripe about Android is that users are lucky to see one OS upgrade on any single device. When iOS or Windows Phone moves from one version to another, everyone gets to move so long as their existing hardware can support the new software. This rarely happens with Android. It’s not uncommon to get left behind.

For me, this is important. It’s why I see Android as the least best choice of the three operating systems. It’s harder work for everyday users who want to get business or other tasks done efficiently.

I understand how Android appeals to more technical types who like to go beneath the surface. It’s a great OS for those who want the freedom to tinker. If that’s you, then fine, I don’t think you’ve made a silly or dumb choice opting for Android.

However, I worry that Android is often the lowest cost option and because of that it is often the OS used by the least technical users. I see that as a problem. Some will struggle to do simple things because of this. Many will not enjoy the full functionality of their tools.