The basic question for smartphone buyers is: What can the device do? Everything else is window dressing. Apps tell the story. (Part 6 of a 6-part series.)
Knowing which smartphone is right for you is largely a matter of knowing what you want to do with it. If you are oriented toward productivity, an iPhone or BlackBerry may be best. Android is especially good at accessing information and keeping in touch. Windows Phone is good at organizing your life and personal contacts. What makes one platform stronger or weaker for certain kinds of tasks? The answer is apps.
Apps: Ecosystems & Native Features
The selection of apps is perhaps the primary reason why Apple has done so well with the iPhone. It fostered an app ecosystem full of productivity tools, personal data loggers, games, cameras, navigators, social networks, music and video services, and so on. Developers often create apps for the iPhone first because they know they can make money from iPhone users. It is rare to see an app available on Android but not on the iPhone (unless it is specific to something Android does). Apple’s App Store offers 700,000 apps. Not all of them are high-quality, but all the top apps are present and work well.
Android is not far behind, with 600,000 apps in its Google Play store. Like the App Store, Google Play also has books, movies and music for purchase. As Android grows in relation to iOS, the difference in functionality available through apps is becoming negligible. Almost all top apps are bound to be available on both platforms.
The line between the dominant Android and Apple platforms and the rest of the market is distinct. Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace has about 100,000 apps and many of them are of dubious quality. (To be fair, apps that are copycats or completely useless to most people can be found in all four major app stores.) Windows Phone is the third and sometimes fourth option for developers (behind the browser-based mobile Web, including HTML5). Windows Phone Marketplace is missing many apps that people would consider must-haves. Instagram, Pandora, Flipboard, Path and RunKeeper - apps that people use on a daily basis that define their smartphone experience - are not yet available on Windows Phone. The Marketplace may offer interesting alternatives to those apps, but most smartphone users will look for the familiar titles and be disappointed when they do not find them.
BlackBerry is even worse. Most major developers do not even look at BlackBerry anymore because not many people are buying BlackBerry devices. Many apps designed for BlackBerry are relics of that platform's enterprise business relationship (such as productivity and communication apps, as well as an inordinate number of apps related to golf). If you are looking for the most popular apps, BlackBerry is not the place to look.
A flipside to the app economies built on these platforms are the native apps that come baked in. Each operating system comes with apps to handle functions like email, talk and text, maps and navigation, as well as unique features. Apple’s Siri is a good example. The voice-activated personal assistant cannot be found in any other platform (although the others, especially Android, have their own voice-controlled services). Siri is one way Apple differentiates itself. Apple’s iCloud, its new maps applications, and PassBook are natives apps unique to Apple.
Google has a suite of specific apps for Android as well, ones that many people use on the Web and are happy to have on their mobile devices. Gmail, Talk (“GChat”), YouTube, Google Maps, Calendar and Docs are all easily accessible through Android devices.
Microsoft pushes users to its own personal cloud storage, SkyDrive, along with mobile versions of its Outlook email system and other Windows productivity apps. BlackBerry’s strongest features are its BlackBerry Messenger system as well as its fast, reliable and secure email service.
Knowing what apps are available for each operating system is an important step toward deciding which smartphone is the best choice for you. Take a look at the default selection, ask users about their favorites, and search the online app stores for functions that are important to you. That will help you differentiate one platform from another.
Part 1: The Myth Of The Perfect Device
Part 2: How Much Should You Pay?
Part 3: Which Carrier Should You Choose?
Part 4: What Do Hardware Specs Mean?
Part 6: What Apps Do You Need?