Nowadays, there are countless mobile devices for all kinds of users, and that wide range of appliances is making more companies get interested in a piece of the cake. The most popular of the operating systems created for them are iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Both have great features, and that’s why they have become so popular, but of course, the influence of every company behind their own creation plays a fundamental role in their development, deployment and success, no wonder these companies are Apple, Google and Microsoft respectively.
However, it’s important to note that the design of every one of this mobile operating systems is the most important thing to reach users’ hearts, which ultimately, is what makes a user fall in love with a specific brand. In this article, we will dive into the main mobile design differences of the most popular platforms, including two of the most recent and underserved competitors: Mozilla and Ubuntu, with the interest of making the analysis more complete and balanced.
Comprehending the future of the OSs through their history
To know the design features of every mobile system, it is important to comprehend some history first. I state this because most of what we see on a graphic interface is the essence of a company at some point in time. For example, Apple was always a design driven company; from its inception, Jobs marked great difference between what he considered was right and wrong, transferring that to the company he loved and thus creating beautiful products, both in hardware and software. Google, on the other hand, is sort of a mixture between design and code, founded on a ground of computer programming, but with an excellent team of designers who beautify programmers creations…
But we also need to consider the tsunami that’s been the Flat Movement, a trend that was able to make the giants tremble; so in next sections we’re gonna take a look at those inner company qualities, and how a general trend in design is reflected in every mobile OS.
iOS: a lifetime of design
The latest release of the popular OS, without any doubt, was a bold move from Apple. The rise of flat design was also an alarm call for the company since the wall of skeuomorphism couldn’t resist the tides of this trend any longer. Jobs did a great job with iOS 6; no one can deny that its design is impeccable and probably the summit of a brilliant career, but Apple needed to create something different, and a series of events like jobs’ death itself and the resignation of Scott Forstall were the triggers of this change. It seems that Jobs wanted the world to keep using Skeuomorphic design since he created every element to resemble the most to reality to make it easy to use even for completely inexperienced users. This formula worked pretty well when the world was fascinated with that kind of simplicity: the simplicity of real objects. Now, simplicity takes the shape of plain lines and conceptual symbols which compress a concept (or a series of concepts) into simple icons.
Windows Phone: Code turns into shape
Microsoft was always the smart kid for numbers, right? Well.. that’s the impression we all get. So when they released their mobile OS, Windows Phone, we were very pleased to see a different face of the company. But, is it really a turning point for Microsoft? Well, no. Microsoft is more of a developers’ company than it is of designers, and that is reflected in various aspects of its OS. For instance, the squared shapes in tiles and icons say a lot of about the company’s design concepts; this indicates the company is inspired by geometric shapes and it will stay that way for a while. The OS makes use of some transparencies but doesn’t get the most out of them. Also, some elements look loose or poorly located, and many icons within tiles seem to be put randomly. However, this is the only OS that has managed to implement a fully flat interface, without the need of minimal elements (gradients or bevels). This is remarkable since it is one of the few that have achieved a usable OS without skeuomorphic components. This forum shows the different opinions of users regarding the design of tiles.
Android: The open source symphony directed by Google
Coded and designed by Google, this mobile OS has the soul of the company, even though several companies and manufacturers have in their hands the faith of Android’s design. The design we all know comes from guidelines established by Google, and it takes advantage of the power of different devices provided by several brands, with Samsung ahead of them. The design of Android is still pretty much minimal (not flat), with some skeuomorphic elements, adopting features like water effects, animated backgrounds, and puffy icons that differentiate it from the rest of mobile systems. In this video, you can see how Google implements the design of Android.
Ubuntu OS: the king of open source, now invading phones
The desktop version of Ubuntu is evolves twice a year and has become very popular due to a series of factors. It has passed from a simple user interface to a complete system with pretty solid effects. It makes use of transparencies and animated icons, and this is reflected in the mobile version of the OS, which is an incredible piece of work. The icons, typography, and shapes are correctly distributed and located, giving the OS a professional appearance. The team at Canonical has really dedicated a long time to its development and it will be an important competitor if it’s released.
Nonetheless, Ubuntu is not actually a consumer OS yet. It is intended for developers, and, although it can be installed in some devices, it may be a potential harm to the device. It does not provide all the functionality of a regular phone; it includes the core applications, GSM connectivity on Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4, Wi-FI, and camera support.
Within its features it has we can include nice effects in the lock screen, the sidebar contains all the apps (not sure that I like that), navigational active tabs, messages displays by dragging down, other menu options by dragging left or right, and different features appearing from every side of the screen. This video shows some of the great design features of this OS.
Firefox OS: The new kid in town
Firefox OS is an interesting project and it also reflects the spirit of the company. It is an OS based on search, and they included a neat mixture between skeuomorphism and flat elements, with rounded app icons, some gradients, all of them keeping the appearance we’re used to with the browser. The predominant colors in the design are orange and blue, and it looks like a mobile version of the browser; it’s based on HTML5. The aim of the company seem to be developing mobile markets where smartphone penetration is still low, and one of the important things is that developers can create apps in HTML5 to be used both in the browser and in the mobile phone, unlike iOS and Android. This question in Quora deepens on this mobile system’s scope.
We have to take into account that the overall design in every OS is whether minimal or flat, taking into account that each company is adjusting and proposing a different style of simple design. Sometimes we can see some skeuomorphic elements in icons, shapes and even in the user interface as a whole. iOS 7 has an overall flat design, with some minimal elements like the transparencies applied in the control center. In Android, Ubuntu and Firefox, the overall design is minimal, complemented with both flat and skeuomorphic elements, and in Windows Phone, the flat experience has been fully implemented.
With the basis of each one of this mobile platforms established, the next table shows which are the main differences in their design. It features the overall design quality, the use of icons and typography so you have a basic idea of how they are composed.
We are in a unique time; for the first time we are acknowledging the power of connectivity and learning how to use it for our advantage not just to work with the great amount of devices out there, but to share with others the experiences we have. These differences contribute to generating a richer environment for the mobile industry, benefiting the final user and creating new trends to make this an even more connected world.