Switched On: Battling for the bronze

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On Battling for the Bronze

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Apple and Google, the latter riding on a Samsung partnership, continue to play an escalating game of units versus revenues to determine which is the top dog in mobile operating systems. However, two companies that were early players in smartphones, but late to revamp their operating systems, look on, seeking to establish themselves as solid third-place entrants, at least as a beachhead.

A couple of years into the re-emergence of Windows Phone and its slow crawl up the market share mountain, the company formerly known as RIM has released BlackBerry 10. Both operating systems lie somewhere between the cathedral of iOS and the bazaar of Android in terms of their tradeoffs between integration and flexibility, with Windows Phone offering a broader range of hardware since it is licensed and has been in the market longer.

Both BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone have burgeoning app marketplaces, but are missing many key apps. While Windows Phone has been gradually building its catalog in the years since it launched, BlackBerry's debut lineup was surprisingly strong. Still, there were numerous iOS favorites missing, including Tweetbot, Instagram, Pandora, Spotify, Hulu and Netflix. Also unsurprisingly lacking on both operating systems is strong support for Google web services such as Maps with navigation, Google Voice and Google Drive.

Strip away the app race and both operating systems also have ties to their respective pasts. The one for Windows Phone, though, is a circuitous one; it has less in common with its predecessor than BlackBerry 10 does with previous BlackBerry operating systems. Windows Mobile's history involved a close UI familiarity with the PC. From the beginning of Microsoft's mobile efforts in the PDA era, its touchscreen phone software has had a Start button and windows that could be minimized like the classic Windows desktop. Windows Phone removed the family resemblance, but only temporarily as the Live Tiles presentation became the default look for Windows 8.

BlackBerry 10's nods to the past are more concrete than reinforcing cross-product continuity (although the operating system will eventually provide a huge app-selection boost to the company's PlayBook tablet). When BlackBerry was known as RIM, it did much to attend to a loyal following, many of whom were reluctant to acquiesce to a more modern user interface. Examples include BlackBerry's support for a physical keyboard as embodied in the more classically BlackBerry (and more universally pronounced) Q10, strong enterprise management and the ability to turn the phone off at a given time.

But perhaps the best embodiment of BlackBerry DNA in BB10 is BlackBerry Hub. A listing of incoming messages that includes social network notifications, it is a modern take on the message list that was the default user interface of the earliest BlackBerry devices and embodies the company's focus on the phone as foremost a communications device. Indeed, there is no mail app in BlackBerry 10 as mail communications are managed through the Hub that is never more than one disjointed swipe away.

DNP Switched On Battling for the Bronze

In contrast, while Windows Phone also has hubs strewn throughout its interface, its defining UI feature is the Live Tile, which is primarily a launcher with a light notification capacity. It takes a bit of gazing at various Live Tiles to get a holistic sense of what's going on. Windows Phone places a greater emphasis on contacts via its People Hub, making it easier to see in one place the various activities and updates from a range of people and even pin people (or rather, thankfully, their digital representations) on the top level of the user interface. It's more of an exploration model whereas the BlackBerry is a more active push to your attention. On BlackBerry 10, in contrast, family, friends and others are still simply listed in a nondescript and dehumanized "Contacts" app.

Some of the contrast might also be influenced by which products are most essential for each company as they embrace both smartphones and tablets. At the debut of Windows Phone 7, many noticed that its panoramas would be well suited to a larger display. And once it was revealed that the Live Tile user interface would be coming to Windows 8, it became clear that Live Tiles had to be a great fit for the larger displays that are more often running Microsoft software.

With BlackBerry, it's about the message. With Windows Phone, it's about the messenger.

In contrast, BlackBerry's bread and butter is the smartphone, and so much attention was clearly paid on delivering a user interface that could cram key information on the limited screen real estate without disrupting other apps. BlackBerry calls this Peek. The company's VP of User Experience Design Don Lindsay summed up the rationale at a developer conference last September when he said, "We know that, in designing for a mobile device experience, that it's all about screen real estate. And screen real estate is limited. In fact, screen real estate is precious."

With BlackBerry, it's about the message. With Windows Phone, it's about the messenger. Clearly, and as is the case with iOS and Android, all of these operating systems can relay the same information from the same people. Still, preferences in terms of interfacing with the people and information will play a role in whether consumers are willing to stray from today's most popular options as Microsoft and BlackBerry seek to recapture their former market leadership.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.