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The Evolution Of Mobile Operating Systems


However, when we talk about how we eventually reached the point of the modern smartphone operating system, that journey started in the decade of the ’90s. A lot happened with mobile operating systems in this decade, but if you want to go in-depth, I could write a whole essay.

Let’s start in 1996 when Palm OS was introduced. Do you remember Palm PDAs back in the day? If you don’t, that’s fine, because they go way back. These were relatively chunky devices that were intended for business purposes. Because Palm’s PDAs used touchscreens, Palm OS was designed specifically for productivity on these devices. This was the first major mobile phone OS, but it wasn’t a perfect representation of what modern smartphone systems were going to bring us…

1998 To 2007: The Ascent Of Symbian OS

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Image: Nokia

Flash forward to 1998, when Symbian was born. Symbian OS found itself on phones from different manufacturers, but its synergy with Nokia is perhaps the best known. Symbian was easily the first major modern smartphone operating system and it had a major foothold (spoiler alert: that ended a few years after the release of iOS and Android).

Symbian OS was released on several smartphones over the years, including the Nokia N8, one of the best-looking phones of all time; and the Nokia N95, a shockingly capable device. The S60 version of Symbian was probably the most popular.

Part of what made Symbian popular was multiple large manufacturers adopting it at some point (Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, etc.), an attractive and easy-to-use graphical interface, several great features (like a web browser, multimedia players, and camera support!), and the ability to install third-party apps.

Windows Mobile Operating Systems

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Image: Microsoft

In this period, Microsoft started to dabble in operating systems for smartphones, and this was when the Windows Mobile platform took off. The name “Windows Mobile” was born in 2003 and was mainly intended for business uses, unlike Symbian which had a consumer focus.

Windows Mobile wasn’t one of the more important entries in the history of things, so let’s just pause on Microsoft’s contributions to smartphones (for now).

The Year 2007

No year was more of a turning point for the smartphone world than 2007. In fact, it is likely the most monumental year in the history of smartphones.

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Image: Apple

2007 was huge for obvious reasons. It was the year that the pioneering Apple iPhone was launched, running on “iPhone OS” (later renamed to iOS), and that was the first example of a smartphone as we know it today. iOS was built around a touch-operated interface, had an app store (a year after release), and could easily be used for browsing the web and media consumption.

iOS was the first mobile operating system to make a smartphone feel like a mini-computer. Apple marketed it as a three-in-one device: a phone, music player, and internet communicator. It also opted for a very friendly user interface, which made it much easier for consumers to get the hang of it.

Besides iOS, though, the Open Handset Alliance, a Google-led association with 34 other major mobile industry players, including HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and others, was developing another mobile operating system.

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Image: HTC

It was merely a year later when the HTC Dream, the first ever Android smartphone, was released, thanks to the work done by the Open Handset Alliance.

Android offers many of the same things that iOS does, but as an OS, it offers a lot to drool over for both consumers and manufacturers. For instance, since its inception, Android has been an open-source operating system, which is exactly why we have so many Android skins to choose from. It allows manufacturers to add more features beyond what the people at Google “permit” us to have.

In addition, consumers were able to enjoy much more customization with the platform and much lower price points, which helped with adoption quite significantly. Tens of manufacturers going all in on Android from the start certainly helped.

From 2009 To Date: Refinements, Refinements

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Image: Peter Holden/Talk Android

By 2009, all the major smartphone operating systems we enjoy today were already in place. Still, new versions continued to be released, smoothing out the creases, working out the knots, and leaving a much better product in its place.

For instance, Windows Mobile became Windows Phone in 2010, and with that, it became a more consumer-focused product. Just like Symbian, it was heavily adopted by Nokia (whose slow adoption of a mainstream OS was heavily responsible for the former phone giant’s downfall). As you must know, though, it is nowhere to be found in 2024; the last release came out in 2015.

iOS has gone through several updates over the years (with iOS 17 being the latest release). With that, it brought additional features like on-device searching, video calling, cloud storage, iMessage, Siri, AirDrop, Apple Pay, lock screen and home screen widgets, and many many UI changes.

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Image: Google

However, we’re all about Android, and while the company used to use sweet-related names in alphabetical order, they now just stick with numbers. Android 14 is the latest one, with its successor (Android 15) set to be officially released later in 2024. Over the years, Android has also changed substantially (for the better), bringing multi-touch support, home screen widgets, video calling, NFC, selfie camera support, face unlock, Google Assistant, lock screen notifications, picture-in-picture mode, multitasking, screen recording, and deeper customization options.

When you pick up your Android smartphone today, just realize that mobile operating systems were not always as capable as this, and pioneers like Palm OS and Symbian are to thank for where things are now.





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