Hey Apple: start innovating!

The operating system wars are getting interesting. And no, I'm not referencing Snow Leopard, nor the imminent release of Microsoft's Windows 7. The operating systems that have the most passionate battle ahead of them are in smartphones. There's been a couple of different matters this week that have brought this to the fore.

First of all, Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney predicted that Android — that's Google's smartphone OS, currently available in Australia on handsets from HTC and Samsung — will overtake iPhone market share by 2012. His comments were widely reported — here's AppleInsider's take on his comments, for example. Delaney's basic thesis is that Android will take market share based on multiple vendors offering Android handsets, and he may well be right. As Android picks up, it's reasonable to expect that things like the Android Marketplace (Google's equivalent to the App store) will pick up as well. If you build it, they will come, and all that.

I've had extensive time to play with Android handsets, and by and large they're very nice. I do have to admit that the open platform nature of the system appeals to me, as does the slide-down notification window. If you're running the newest version of Facebook for iPhone, you'll have a taste of that, as the notifications bar sits at the base. Imagine that feature, system-wide, for any kind of message or notification. It's not a huge feature, but it's a nice little innovation.

It's that kind of innovation that I think Apple needs to work on with the iPhone version of OS X. Innovation doesn't have to imply a complete overhaul, but it does need to introduce useful features and not break what already works. Which brings me to the other big mobile OS news of the week.

Microsoft launched version 6.5 of its Windows Mobile (or Windows Phone, depending on which script a given spokesperson's reading from) platform this week. I went along to the Sydney launch where they showed off the new HTC Touch Diamond 2 smartphone running the 6.5 update. Yes, HTC does both Windows Mobile and Android phones. Something tells me that if Apple ever licensed it out, HTC would happily produce an iPhone (called something different of course).

Anyway, I've not had enough time to review Windows Mobile 6.5 fully, and it wouldn't be fair for me to draw too many conclusions on what it's like to use based on the five minutes or so I had to fiddle with a handset. The reactions around the web aren't all that positive, however, with most commentators not happy that Microsoft hasn’t innovated much around the core Windows Mobile experience.

To date, Windows Mobile hasn't been much of a looker — so much so that individual operators and phone companies have been "skinning" the operating system to hide as much of it as possible. In fact, the Touch Diamond 2 I had a quick play with on Wednesday was running HTC's "TouchFlo" skin, although some digging could bring up the more Microsoft-centric features. There are a few interesting innovations, like the idea that consumers can have one no-explanation-required refund for a mis-purchased or mis-advertised App per month; and the honeycomb-style sliding application window doesn't seem too bad, although reports do indicate that the only sorting option you've got is to shift an app to the top of the list. That's pretty dumb if it's true, but as I've not had a chance to test it out I can't be sure. What does seem a little more certain is that Microsoft hasn’t innovated all that much with Windows Mobile 6.5.

But enough of other companies! Where does this put Apple?

Apple, I think, has some advantages in that with the iPhone it got a lot of things right, straight away. The iPhone is (largely) very simple to use. I'm qualifying that because there are matters that could be improved, either on an App level (a much better mail client would be a good start) or an interface one (like easily switching off battery-draining services like Bluetooth or WiFi). Still, combining an easy to use smartphone, which was still something of a pipe dream only a couple of years ago, with marketing hype that made it the "must have" gadget hasn't done Apple's coffers any harm at all.

Still, Apple can't sit still, and it's shown in the past with the iPod range (and, for that matter, the Mac for much of the 1990s) that this is something it can be guilty of. iPod development has been glacial, to put it kindly. It's taken years for radio to appear in iPods — years later than its competitors. After no end of rumours, there isn't a camera in the iPod Touch 3rd Generation. Sure, it's nice to sit on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, but the fact of the matter is that the competition is coming and it's innovating as it goes. Maybe only in small ways, but even those innovations are a good pointer to Apple as to things that could be improved, borrowed or even innovated upon.

What features of iPhone OS X would you like to see improved? What innovations should Apple undertake to stay ahead of the smartphone game? Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

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