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Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms

As described in the previous segment introducing iPhone 2.0 software, Apple's latest mobile operating system reference release delivered a range of major and minor new features, but not without failing to address some long standing issues. Even worse, the initial version of the new iPhone 2.0 has eroded away the facade of near flawlessness Apple rolled out with the original iPhone last year, resulting in a product that is simply harder to be unreservedly enthusiastic about. This segment will compare the features exposed and architecturally available in the iPhone OS, and how it stacks up against other smartphone platforms.

Inside iPhone 2.0 series outline and publication dates:

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware (Last Thursday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones (Last Friday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software (Monday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms (Today)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store (Wednesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe push messaging (Thursday)

Desperately seeking software updates

Despite the birthing pangs related to iPhone 2.0.0, there is good reason to believe that Apple will quickly deliver fixes for the feature omissions and stability problems in the iPhone 2.0 software, at no extra cost (although this can't come soon enough for the millions of existing users who are already using the software on a daily basis). The reason for this faith is the company's regular updates to iPhone 1.0 last year, which included six significant deliverables within the first eight months.

Apple released security update 1.0.1 within days of the initial late-June launch of the iPhone last year, and then followed up with the 1.0.2 bug fix release within two months toward the end of August. A month later in late September, Apple delivered 1.1.1, which addressed a variety of other issues and included several new features, from interface enhancements to support for the WiFi iTunes Store and video output. A month and a half later in mid November, Apple shipped 1.1.2, which fixed bugs and added international support. In mid January, it released 1.1.3, which added a location feature in Maps, allowed editing of the home icons and the addition of web links as icons, and several other features. In mid-February, 1.1.4 added a number of other minor enhancements. 

Apple just released iPhone 2.0.1 as bug fix and stability release, and is working on an iPhone 2.1 feature update aimed for September. The second update is expected to deliver support for background notifications for third party apps, as well as significant improvements to GPS location services that should be able to provide reports on your current direction and speed, information required to provide turn-by-turn directions.

Updates on other smartphone platforms
This rapid pacing of Apple's free updates is unheard of on competing smartphone platforms. The Palm OS seemingly hasn't been updated since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and those that Palm did issue over the last half decade have largely been ignored by the developers and device makers who were supposed to take advantage of them. 

The Symbian partnership has delivered four incremental updates to Symbian 9.0 since 2004, roughly one per year. These updates are often related to new hardware, and in many cases owners of Symbian phones simply can't upgrade to whatever the latest official version is. 

RIM's BlackBerry OS update page similarly warns, "If you did not purchase BlackBerry software or smartphones directly from Research In Motion (RIM), please contact your service provider to determine if the software distributed by RIM is authorized for use with your smartphone." That highlights why Apple chose to only market the iPhone through mobile partners that would agree to allow Apple itself to deliver updates and support for all of its phones worldwide.

When Microsoft shipped Windows Mobile 5.0 in 2005, the update wouldn't even run on most existing WinCE phones because it required new hardware support for its persistent RAM architecture change. The following release of Windows Mobile 6.0 didn't ship until two years later in 2007, and Windows Mobile 6.1, a relatively minor update, took more than another year to shake loose from the bowels of Microsoft. Even after a Windows Mobile release "ships," owners of specific models might have to wait for many months before their mobile provider or software vendor allows them to install it, if they ever choose to do so.

Despite now being a decade old, the WinCE foundation of Windows Mobile is also still regarded as unstable, riddled with bugs, and poorly architected, with a horrific user interface, clumsy process management, and development tools that are a simple regurgitation of the archaic Win32 desktop API, lacking much optimization for mobile development. The next segment will compare how Windows Mobile software stacks up against the iPhone in terms of price and polish. This segment will focus on the basic foundation technologies provided by each smartphone platform.

Getting smartphone updates

Apple's ability to rapidly deliver software updates far faster than its rivals is not the only issue facing smartphone users however. In addition to operating system software updates, many phone manufacturers also issue firmware updates specific to certain models, but since most smartphones lack the smooth integration that Apple provides between hardware, software, online services, and its iTunes sync management tool, it's often problematic to find, download, and actually install all the appropriate updates that might be available. 

Apple issues all of its updates, including operating system software enhancements and security patches, hardware related firmware and driver refinements, new and improved bundled apps, and even updates to third party apps all centrally through iTunes, something unmatched by other phone makers and platform developers. Other smartphone platforms are notorious for their poor integration between hardware and software development.
Back in 2002, Palm followed the pundits' longstanding advice for Apple and spilt itself into separate hardware and software subsidiaries. The idea was that newly independent PalmSource could license the Palm OS software to other hardware makers, such as Sony for use in its CLIÉ line. But what actually resulted was a mess of incompatibility and confusion that left end users stuck between trying to get OS updates from PalmSource but firmware updates and desktop sync software from either PalmOne, Sony, or some other hardware maker. 

The hardware side of Palm (since renamed back to simply Palm again) later licensed Windows Mobile from Microsoft. However, that didn't improve things for Palm's Treo owners. Because Microsoft doesn't sell its own smartphone hardware, it only replaced PalmSource (now known as ACCESS) as "half of the whole" that supported Palm's hardware devices. Microsoft plays the same, incomplete role for other owners of Windows Mobile devices, such as those from HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and other manufacturers. 

On page 2 of 4: Microsoft's software-centric smartphone model; Other software mobile platforms; Mobile software platforms from hardware makers; and Smartphone features the iPhone can't yet do (thanks to AT&T).