Smartphone OS smackdown: WebOS vs. the world

WebOS needs to beat -- not meet -- Apple iPhone, Google Android , Microsoft Windows Mobile, RIM BlackBerry and Symbian S60

Does the world need another smartphone operating system? Apple's iPhone OS is still booming; Google's Android is increasingly promising; and three longtime contenders--Microsoft's Windows Mobile, RIM's BlackBerry OS, and Symbian's S60--are undergoing serious renovation to keep up with the times.

All of which presents a major challenge for WebOS, the much-anticipated, much-delayed phone OS that debuts on the Palm Pre. For WebOS to have a future, it must do more than catch up with its competitors. In one or more major respects, it must be better than existing alternatives. Otherwise, Palm--the beleaguered company whose PalmPilot and Treo were handheld-computing landmarks--might just as well have built a Pre that used Android or some other already-here OS.

Having spent a bit of time with the Pre, I'm very happy that Palm chose the hard route rather than the expedient one. WebOS, which looked so promising when the company unveiled it at CES in January, delivers on most of that promise. It's an exciting platform for next-generation smartphone apps; it's a fitting heir to the groundbreaking-but-obsolete Palm OS it replaces; and it's the most polished, inventive iPhone OS rival to date. Even if you never buy a WebOS phone, you may benefit from its existence. (I suspect that other mobile OS developers will soon try to replicate some of its signature features, such as its intuitive multitasking and its deep integration with online services.)

Read on for a look at how WebOS compares with Apple's iPhone OS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Nokia's Symbian S60 5th Edition, and RIM's BlackBerry OS. I judged the five operating systems on their capabilities, ease of use, and visual panache, and I assessed both their standard applications and third-party programs.

Apple iPhone OS

What it is: iPhone OS is a pocket-size version of Mac OS X, shrunk down and redesigned to power the iPhone 3G.

How it works: As you zip around the iPhone 3G's multitouch interface with your fingertips, hardware and software blur into one pleasing experience. With other OSs, it's all too easy to get lost in menus or forget how to accomplish simple tasks; iPhone apps, however, are remarkably sleek and consistent. Version 3.0, due this summer, promises to fill in most of the holes in version 2.2 by adding cut and paste, OS-wide search, better support for landscape-mode use, and the ability for programs such as IM clients to alert you even when they're not running. (The OS will still lack true multitasking, however.)

How it looks: Terrific. Everything from the sophisticated typography to the smooth animation effects contributes to the richest, most attractive environment ever put on a handheld device.

Built-in applications: What's good is great--especially the Safari browser, which makes navigating sites that weren't designed for viewing on a phone remarkably simple. The OS's music and video programs are truly of iPod caliber, too. But as a productivity tool the iPhone lacks depth: For instance, you get no apps for editing documents or managing a to-do list.

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