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.

15 thoughts on “Android: Third among equals

  1. It will be interesting to see if anything changes for you after Android L. Look forward to an update.

    I must say the changes Android is bringing in to deal with these “problems” is the very reason I will be leaving their ecosystem. The thing is you can’t have both options and consistency so they have to follow what the everyman wants, especially as Microsoft does what they do best (screw up initally and then iteratively turn it into a good product) the competition is heating up.

    • Google is in a difficult place with Android right now. Clamp down too hard on the overlays and phone makers could head elsewhere to find ways to differentiate. Don’t clamp down and the fracturing gets messier.

  2. Can’t say I agree with some of this.
    My phone is several years old and is on Android 2.2 (I should update it as more ram and a faster processor would be good). My tablet is on Android 4.1 and my mums tablet on Android 4.4. All different manufacturers. According to Bill, these wouldn’t talk to one another nicely and the interface would be radically different so I’d find it hard to work on one and migrate to another. I just don’t see that. My mum can use any device confidentally and so can I without missing out on anything. A jarring experience using another manufacturers device? What a load of nonsense. I also transfer files amongst them without issues, that’s where standards like bluetooth etc come into play. They’re called standards for a reason.
    The only bug bear is the fact that OS upgrades are rare on Android (and cudos to Apple et al for making updates available to all previous devices).

  3. OMG. If I have ever seen an article written to be click bait its this one. Lack of facts and research is shocking

  4. To a large extent, this mirrors the Apple/Microsoft/Linux continuum; you pick your own point on it depending upon your personal evaluation of the factors of UI friction vs flexibility. The difference this time is that the “Linux” camp (Android) is making a real effort to approach the low-friction positions of the others.
    That each Android OEM tweaks the UI more or less means that there is much more rapid evolution in the Android world. Apple’s enormous first mover advantage in mobile has been eroded by it.

    The lowest-cost android devices will usually be those that stick closest to Google’s stock android build- whereas Samsung and some others delight in piling on the added value that both increases their prices and fragments the market. So low-price customers will generally get today’s vanilla version, which is good. And they will trade up when some value-added feature makes the extra cost and complexity worth their while. In my case, that was the S-Pen.

  5. Good summery of the state of the mobile world. Graham makes a good point about vanilla Android.
    The reality is that we have eco-systems now that are locking us in. No matter your choice initially. Fro. The perspective of a software developer it is interesting – where do you hedge the bets? Software is becoming a weird commodity. Perhaps you can give a think piece on that sometime Bill?

  6. I’m just grateful we have competition from 3 different OSs. it has been good for everyone.

  7. Come on man, before you quickly point out the cheap Chinese phones bear in mind the apple or Microsoft phones are not that cheap so your cannot add them in to this equaton.

    To your first point, almost all apps work on any android device. All major app developers work hard to make sure they do.

    Second point, name a flagship android device comparable to the iPhone price that hasn’t had one update? Also what difference does it make if your phone is android 4.2 or 4.4? All apps work the same.. Similar interface.. The average consumer wouldn’t know the difference.

    Yours arguments are pretty flawed if you remove cheaper devices, however cheaper devices have their place, thats how your average Joe got a smartphone before they realized they wanted it.

  8. I had a bad experieince with an iPhone 3GS shortly after they were launched (after paying the full $1300 for the device! Never again!). In the six months that I put up with it, it bricked on me three times, and I found defects in the Calendar app (timezone related, and affecting many countries other than just NZ) that Apple seemed to not care less about – IIRC they fixed the defects about six months after I upgraded to AndroidOS.

    Unfortunately, this has fatally tarnished my opinion of the fruit behemoth, whom I see as an organisation who charges way more (snob value) than what the device is worth (compare Android devices $300-$500 cheaper), copies features from AndroidOS and launches them as “Amazing!”, “New!”, “Revolutionary!” to their gullible followers, who just lap it up!

    Contrast that to the Android devices I have owned since then (Nexus One, HTC Sensation, Nexus 4, Nexus 7 (wifi only and LTE) and I can honestly say I have never had an issue (apart from battery life, and SenseUI on the HTC – but you can’t blame AndroidOS for a crappy manufacturer overlay).

    “on Android. Samsung’s Android user interface is different to LG’s Android and so on” – this is exactly why I only purchase Nexus devices now. They are consistent with their UI across devices of a similar type and get regular OS updates that are not dependent on the carrier, who tests (at their leisure) the updates on the likes of devices from HTC, Samsung etc.

  9. I’d have to ask Bill, how many people have an original iPhone? How many the 2nd generation? How many the third? You seem to think that an OS upgrade is a major advantage but the reality is, there’s unlikely to be any old phones in the market now. The processors would be too slow and they’d have insufficient memory. Android manufacturers will usually release at least one OS update (tablets would usually get more), after that there’s likely little value as people are unlikely to want their old phones anymore. Phones are a throwaway commodity today – that’s why Android has done so well, they can offer cheap phones that people update after a few years giving them larger screens, faster processes, more memory, additional hardware (like NFC chips) etc. Even Apples had to succumb to the larger screen size after all these years. You could see they were worried about that when they released iOS7, which gave a bit more screen real estate.

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