FIRST, there were just plain cell phones (now called “feature” phones), designed to simply place telephone calls away from home or office. Then, quite quickly, so-called “smart phones” came along, adding Internet connectivity. Because of this additional capability, smart phones combine the best elements of PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants) such as cameras, calendars, large color screens, touch screens and gestures, e-mail and the like. Presently, smart phones are morphing into mini-computers, with larger high-resolution screens, swipe keyboards, faster processors and more memory, GPS and hot-spot capabilities and much, much more. Today’s smart phones have more computing power than Apollo 11 did when it journeyed to the moon, and more capabilities than mainframes did twenty years ago. Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher/executive is generally considered to be the inventor of the first portable mobile phone. He made the first call on April 3, 1973 on a Motorola DynaTAK 8000X to his rival over the invention, Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs, while walking on a N.Y. sidewalk. World’s first “smartphone” was the “IBM Simon Personal Communicator”. It went on sale on August 16, 1994.
Along with all of this evolution, the software systems which operate these smart phones have taken on an importance all their own. With basic cell phones, all you had to worry about was selecting a relatively generic carrier, along with a pricing plan that considered your basic needs (lots of local calls, long distance needs, etc.). Smart phones have many more capabilities, so you have to select a software operating system that suits as many of those needs as possible. Want to play games or surf the net while speaking on the phone, an Apple may be better for you than, perhaps, an Android, which will offer you free GPS or hot-spot capability. Or, if you require corporate security and Outlook ability, you may need a Blackberry.
Making the purchase decision much more complicated is the issue of the phone itself. Each phone manufacturer (e.g. Samsung, HTC, Motorola) has different features hard-wired into the phone itself, regardless of the entire list of features offered in any given operating system. So you have to choose a phone, an operating system and a carrier as a complete “system” which suits you. Depending on the hardware, it may run various versions of the O/S, but also have limitations (the iPhone 4 can do more than the iPhone 3; the Android 3.0 can do more than the Android 2.5; some phones can use the 3G systems, while some can go on the faster 4G system; some can read QR codes, others can’t; some can run Microsoft Exchange, some can run Outlook, some can’t run either. In some cases, your phone’s O/S (“firmware”) can be updated to accommodate the newer O/S and features, while in other cases you’ll need to get a new or different phone. And that doesn’t even take into account the various emerging protocols (technologies) over which the phones operate (see below for links). Whew!
Here’s a brief summary of the operating systems and their advantages:
Apple OS: Current operating system is iOs 8. Characteristically, Apple uses iTunes to sync its devices, so that you can sync between your iPad, iPhone and iPod. But, if you don’t like being tethered to the net and going through only one provider for everything, it can become irksome. If you need Flash, forget it, can’t get it. No video recording, either. But if you want gazillions of apps (many of which you may use exactly once), a slick user interface, flawless customer support, Apple is tops. [Available on Apple iPhones only.]
Android: Current operating system is Jelly Bean, soon Marshmallow. Developed by the folks at Google, it’s now the number one operating system for smart phones. And there are lots of them. It’s open source, which means that anybody can write an app for the smart phone, even you. Of course, since it’s not controlled by a single company like Apple, you’ve got a lot of unofficial programs, and quality control isn’t as good. On an Android phone, turn-by-turn GPS come standard, and most phones sport their use as a Wi-Fi hotspot, so you can connect to the Internet through your phone. [Available on Motorola Droid, HTC, Nexus phones.] In late September, 2015, Google announced a new Nexus smartphone (the 6P) running the Marshmallow O/S, available by the end of the year.
NOTE THAT, WHILE THERE HAVE BEEN ONLY SIX iPHONES, AND A FEW BLACKBERRY AND WINDOWS PHONES, THERE HAVE BEEN OVER 3,997 ANDROID PHONES. WHAT MAKES MATTERS WORSE IS THAT EACH PHONE MANUFACTURER UPDATES THEIR OPERATING SYSTEM SEPARATELY, SO YOU CAN HAVE THE SAME TYPE OF OPERATING SYSTEM ON SEVERAL DEVICES, BUT WITH DIFFERENT VERSIONS, MEANING THAT YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO FIND EVERYTHING IN THE SAME PLACE ON EACH DEVICE. SO FAR, THERE’S NOT MUCH YOU CAN DO ABOUT THIS. AND, WHILE SOME COMPLAIN ABOUT APPLE’S “WALLED GARDEN,” IT HAS ITS ADVANTAGES.
>>In the post-Snowden era, both Apple and Android have beefed up their encryption to prevent government and law enforcement snooping. Apple’s iOS8 and Google’s L-release patch and its newer operating system releases have full encryption by default. But this won’t prevent law enforcement or others from accessing information users store in the cloud, which isn’t encrypted, so it is up to users not to store information in that manner if they want it to be secure.
Blackberry: If you work for a company concerned with security, this is the answer. If you must use Microsoft Exchange or Outlook and don’t want to search for somewhat useful apps, this is what you need. But it isn’t intended to jump through hoops - this phone is fairly utilitarian compared to the others and concentrates on providing a secure and solid messaging experience. [Available only on Blackberry phones, like the Classic and the Passport.]
Windows Mobile: Made by Microsoft, of course, this operating system is also excellent for business users, particularly those who run the proprietary Microsoft business apps like Office (Outlook). The newest version has received excellent reviews, but is still only 2.8% of the market as of 2016, so who knows where this will go. For example, Microsoft has scaled back on selling the hardware, even though it acquired Nokia in 2014.
WebOS/Palm Pre: These legacy operating systems pretty much mimic the Apple iPhone, using the Internet to connect many of its features and apps through a slick interface. Known for being pretty zippy and responsive, but not many apps. [Available on Palm phones, not very common any more.]
Symbian: Since this Nokia operating system was recently purchased by Microsoft, and didn’t have much presence in the U.S. anyway, it’s pretty much been put to rest, not worth even discussing. [Available on Nokia phones.]
Mozilla Firefox: On July 2, 2013, the ZTE Open, the first smartphone based on the Mozilla Firefox O/S went on sale in Spain. At the same time, Mozilla demonstrated the Alcatel One Touch Fire at a press conference in San Francisco. And on 9/1/14 Mozilla introduced the Intex Cloud FX for $33 over Snapdeal on line in India, coming shortly thereafter throughout Asia. Both cost way less than $100 and are pretty similar to the Android and iPhones, as you would expect. As entry level smart phones, they don’t have the full range of features, speed or apps you would expect of the pricier smartphones, but they are quite respectable, at least for people who are upgrading from feature phones. But for those more sophisticated users, they may be frustrated when they find that the shortcomings won’t allow them to do what their friends who have more complete but expensive smartphones can do. UPDATE: The experiment didn’t work - Mozilla killed the Firefox phone in February, 2016, announced it would concentrate on the IoT.
Ubuntu (Linux): Set to launch in 2014, the Ubuntu Edge Linux phone, to be released by Canonical, was greatly anticipated, but never happened. However, the first Ubuntu phone finally went on sale in June, 2015, and it is the Aquarius E4.5 Ubuntu Edition. Plusses: The Unix interface was designed with mobile devices in mind and has been fine-tuned for four years, is constantly updated, easily customized, cloud friendly, is quite secure, has a consistent desktop across devices, with excellent search capabilities and gesturing. And it already has tons of apps. The initial Ubuntu handset, the Aquaris E4,5, doesn’t run apps in the traditional manner. Rather, apps are written in HTML5 or its own QML code, but the operating system effectively hides them away, so that rather than the traditional grid of app shortcuts it uses themed “cards” (which developer Canonical calls “Scopes”), like ones for music, video, photos, nearby and apps, which can be changed by swiping the screen. We’ll see if it can break the Apple/Android stranglehold in the US market. Unfortunately, in the Linux phone race, Samsung, using the Tizen O/S (below) is surpassing Ubuntu in bringing a Linux phone to the market.
Google: About two months after rival Mozilla launched two low-cost Firefox smartphones in India (see above), Google released the first Android One phones in September, 2014. At a cost of about $100 each, users can separately specify the CPU, graphics unit, storage, type of battery and type of camera. The first phones are made by Micromax, already India’s best selling phone maker. At a minimum, the phone will have a 4.5 inch display, 1Gb of RAM, a 5Mp rear camera and 2Mp front one, a quadcore processor and the ability to run new versions of Android O/S. As part of the local market, they will also have a Micro-SD slot, replaceable battery, built-in FM radio and slots for two SIM cards. Google will also customize special apps for India, including railway bookings and cricket scores as well as special publications. UPDATE: In October 2016, in the U.S. Google Introduced the Pixel smart phone, which replaces the previous Nexus line, and which is intended to compete with the iPhone, in two models at a base price of $649. First reviews are excellent, with it’s nice cameras, case, VR readiness, long lasting and quick charging battery. Google also looks to becoming a mobile carrier - it has bought substantial capacity during 2014 on the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile, so it’s possible that Google may sell service directly to consumers. Samsung also expects launched its Tizen phones (see below) in India in January, 2015. All expect to sell some 400 million smartphones in this market in the next five years. Google says it has no plans to introduce the Android One in the U.S.
Tizen: (Pronounced “Tai-zen”) This is a new upcoming open-source platform which has support from Samsung, Intel, LG, Panasonic and carriers Orange, Vodaphone, SK Telecom, Sprint, SoftBank Mobile as well as Chinese and South Korean manufacturers. It may be a player in the years to come. The Samsung-Z has been offered in Russia, India and other countries as of 2015 and Samsung is already using Tizen in the Samsung Gear smart watch.
Amazon Fire Phone: Amazon announced it’s own smart phone on June 18, 2014. Unlike FaceBook, which made its entrance into smart phones by only introducing a special HTC model phone, Amazon will go the whole route with the hardware and software coming from Amazon. This will avoid the merry-go-round issues that many users experience when the phone malfunctions and they’re shuttled between the phone manufacturer, software manufacturer and the service provider. With Amazon, they’re all going to be the same: Amazon. The phone will sport a glasses-free 3-D feature (called Dynamic Perspective) which will use retina-tracking technology to make some screen objects appear to be 3-D, using four corner cameras plus a center one, each with built-in infrared technology. Of course, the phone would offer shopping apps (dubbed “Firefly”), and a mobile version of its Kindle reader, but on its very own platform, not through Apple and Google. Also unlimited Amazon Cloud storage and Mayday tech support and a free year of Amazon Prime. Still, many critics deride it as a mere Amazon promotional shopping device, not a true phone. (“It does make phone calls, too?” they all ask.) It will initially be sold only through AT&T as a provider starting on July 25, 2014, at a cost of $199 ($649 without a contract). Amazon has the money, and it’s an uphill climb against Android and Apple, but it has huge name recognition and may succeed. It has great new features, if enough people want them and if they don’t get too cluttered with self-promotional advertising. Update: By 2015, Amazon admitted that its’ plans for its own smart phone were a failure, and it was withdrawn from the market. However, never to give up, on June 29, 2016, Amazon announced that it would start offering discounts on (two) Android phones (Blu R1 HD and Moto G) as part of it Prime subscription program. However, users will have to agree to see ads on the lock screen of those phones.
HOW TO SELECT A SMART PHONE: Throughout this site, both for hardware and software selection, I have stressed that the very first thing to consider is what you are planning to do with the device and that is equally, perhaps most, applicable to phones. First, the hardware: If you just want a phone to make calls if an emergency arises and maybe make a few local calls each month, you’re probably better off with a simple cell phone, not a smart phone, and possibly even a pay-as-you-go plan. Go to WalMart or your drug store and check one out. Don’t pay for features you have no intention of using. On the other extreme, if you are planning on making lots of long-distance calls to family, make sure you have an unlimited calling and free long distance plan. If you’re watching videos and music, get a phone with a high definition screen and the best data plan possible, or else you may end up with high bills due to overage fees. In other words, do a little checking (as carriers can vary greatly) and shape your plan to your usage. Also, the advertising that shows the size and availability of various carriers’ networks is great, but check with users where you plan to use your phone - there are always dead zones, even with the best service - to make sure you will be able to get fast access where you want. Your kid is going to college, check with the people there to find out which is the best carrier for that campus. Same for work phones, you don’t want to have to go outside to check with your family on your break.
Remember that if you purchase your phone from most cellular providers, it is “locked”. So, for example, if you purchase it from Verizon, it’ll only work on their network. If you’re lucky enough to select a cellular provider or purchase a phone (on e-Bay perhaps), that is “unlocked,” you will be able (in theory, at least) to siply move the SIM card from your old phone to a new one and have access to the new cellular provider’s network. But there still can be issues. For example the sizes of the SIM cards must be compatible. Pretty soon, we’d like to see all cell phones “unlocked”. But the providers are fighting this, as they’d like to keep you locked in to a contract. Starting in 2015, however, the big providers stopped selling phones which were billed to contracts monthly, effectively financing the purchase, and demanded payment in full up front for the phones, so it may be easier to find an unlocked one. While Apple controls all of the software on its phones, Google doesn’t. That means, unfortunately, that you may get a phone with a different user interface plus apps that you may not want and probably can’t remove. I don’t use Facebook, but I’m stuck with it and can’t remove it, for example. And I can’t upgrade my Android O/S from Lollipop to Marshmallow without basically stripping it down and reloading, despite reading that Google is providing automatic updates to the Android O/S. Just be aware.
Summary of current plan features, 2015: T-Mobile is the best at creative plans. You can upgrade phones whenever you desire. But you have to purchase the phone separately from the service, although you can finance it with monthly payments. Plans start as low as $50/mo for 1Gb of data. AT&T also lets you purchase your phone with monthly payments, as does Verizon Edge and Sprint, with varying conditions. But remember that if you don’t upgrade your phone more than once every two years, those 2 year plans will cost you less than the monthly payment ones. Family plans, which allow all users to share a pool of data and talk time among multiple lines can be useful under some conditions. Sprint advertises 20Gb of data, split between up to 10 lines for only $100/mo., and up. Plans from other providers are similar, but Spring has the most data time. [If you are wondering how much the normal (i.e. not teenage) user actually consumes each month, the average is less than 1Gb.] Finally, if you’re the ‘jumping ship” kind of user who likes to switch each time something new comes out, there are plans for you. Right now, T-Mobile seems to offer the most options, but that can change any time.
CUSTOMER SATISFACTION: In the 2015 annual customer satisfaction survey, T-Mobile knocked Verizon out of first place and AT&T out of second to move to #1. Generally, wireless carriers continued to outperform all home Internet and subscription TV subscribers. You may consider this when purchasing your cell or smart phone.
CROSS LINKS TO VARIOUS PROTOCOLS OR TECHNOLOGIES: G, 3g, LTE, UMTS, EVDO, CDMA, HSDPA, WIMAX, IMEI, HDVOICE.
Tips for traveling with your cell phone internationally, click HERE.
Tips, tricks and settings you may not have discovered on your cell phone and smart phone, click HERE.