posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 19th Dec 2011 20:11 UTC
IconOnce upon a time, in a land, far, far away, there were two mobile operating systems. One of them was designed for mobile from the ground up; the other was trying really hard to copy its older, desktop brother. One was limited in functionality, inflexible and lacked multitasking, but was very efficient, fast, and easy to use. The other had everything and the kitchen sink, was very flexible and could multitask, but had a steep learning curve, was inconsistent, and not particularly pretty.


The recent influx of people who call themselves geeks just because they bought an iPhone or an Android device a few years ago and now discuss pixel offsets in icons (with all due respect, really) has caused a bit of a schism in the technology industry between them, and people like me, now labelled stodgy and old-fashioned. Most of the popular technology media is dominated by the former, which is why you see so much pointless "iOS/Android copied iOS/Android!"-nonsense on popular technology websites these days - completely ignoring the fact that the mobile computing industry wasn't invented when Apple launched the iPhone.

Here at OSNews I always like to hope we have more respect for and understanding of history. I'm hoping that most of you realised that the first paragraph wasn't about iOS vs. Android. No, it's about the two mobile operating systems from the '90s current mobile operating systems consider free idea buckets without giving any credit: PalmOS and Windows Mobile. Ever wondered on whose shoulders the mobile giants of today are standing?

I was a heavy user of both PalmOS and Windows Mobile back in the PDA days. PalmOS was almost strictly utilitarian; it wasn't good at multimedia, couldn't multitask, and was quite inflexible. At the same time, as a personal organiser, it kicked everyone else's butt. You could give almost anyone a PalmOS device, and they'd find their way - it was consistent and logical. The battery lasted ages.

Windows Mobile, on the other hand, could be very confusing, was inconsistent, and had a far steeper learning curve. At the same time, its flexibility still isn't matched by Android (let alone by iOS). You can literally do everything with Windows Mobile. Back when Apple was still busy trying not to die, and Google was a search engine, I was using my Windows Mobile PDA with wifi to connect to SAMBA networks to stream Futurama episodes from my server, while browsing the web and sending out emails. At the same time. The battery lasted ages.

I have very fond memories of both.

These days, only people like us (if you'll pardon the generalisation) have fond memories of PalmOS and Windows Mobile. PalmOS is getting more love than it deserves these days, while Windows Mobile gets more hate than it deserves. Back in those days, it was amazing just how much power you could have in your pocket. PDAs were cheaper than today's smartphones, were far less powerful specification-wise, but they still allowed you to do things not even the most expensive current smartphones can do.

So, when the iPhone first came out, the people that had little to no experience with the power and flexibility of the PDA compared the iPhone to the only thing they knew: mobile phones. They saw BlackBerries, dumbphones, and the occasional Treo, and declared the iPhone a revolution in terms of its functionality.

In the meantime, people like me were comparing the iPhone to what it really should've been compared to: PDAs. From my point of view, the iPhone was not revolutionary at all1. It was, and still is, a PDA. You can draw a straight line from both Windows Mobile and PalmOS to iOS and Android2. They are direct descendants. In fact, for me, the iPhone almost felt like a dumbphone compared to my much more versatile PDAs, and iOS, to this day, feels like using PalmOS.

This is not a popular opinion. The moment you point to the fact that both iOS and Android borrow heavily from PalmOS and Windows Mobile, people who have never actually used either of these for any extended period of time come out of the woodwork, claiming that using a finger is somehow substantially different from using a stylus - ignoring the fact that I could use my PDAs without a stylus almost effortlessly. As I've said before - using a finger and enlarging buttons does not a new paradigm make.

Heck, you even have people claiming iOS descends from the Newton, and not from PalmOS. iOS, with its traditional WIMP paradigm, a descendant from the Newton, with its notebook paradigm. Right. How cute.

Up until a year ago, I used an iPhone 3GS (for about a year). Up until I bought the Galaxy SII that's the subject of this review, I used an HTC HD7 running Windows Phone 7.5. I didn't really like either of those. I didn't hate them either - I just didn't particularly like them, let alone love them. They never felt like my phones. Every iPhone is the same. Every Windows Phone 7 install is the same. Like I said a few years ago, they're like Ikea frying pans. They do the job and aren't ugly, but I don't really love them. There's no connection between me as a user and the pan.

With Android, all that changed. Android brings back some of the magic of the versatility and flexibility of the PDA - but at a price.

I'll first cover the hardware (but only in a limited fashion), followed by a more in-depth look at the software. Note, though, that I'm not always 100% sure whether something is an Android feature, or something that comes from Samsung's modifications. In other words, all observations in this article pertain to the stock T-Mobile NL Galaxy SII ROM (which, coincidentally, illustrates my biggest complaint about Android, but more on that later).

As a final note before we begin, since I don't want to continually state the obvious: I'm a geek with a tremendous amount of experience with different operating systems, and my views certainly don't match with that of the mythical grandma. Keep that in mind while reading this review, since I'll only state it once.

1...and with that I mean not revolutionary in functionality. It was, obviously, revolutionary if you look at how is changed the market place. It hit like a nuclear bomb.
2The Newton is expressly not mentioned here, since the Newton's user interface paradigm, while popular at the time, was an evolutionary dead end. The notebook paradigm, used in the Newton and Go's PenPointOS is an entirely different UI paradigm than what we use on smartphones today.

Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Hardware; Overall feel; Consistency; Polish
  3. Crapware; iTunes; Applications; Notifications
  4. Multitasking
  5. Flexibility; Google, get your #*$@ together
  6. TouchWiz; Misc.; Conclusion
  7. Screenshots of my device
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