Mobile Technologies: Popular Mobile Operating Systems and Applications

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Like other non-mobile devices such as desktop PCs and notebooks, the operating systems on cellular handsets and PDAs are becoming more advanced all the time. Even the software on basic phones is slowly evolving toward better operability and functionality.

Let’s take a closer look at the common operating systems, mobile applications and widgets which provide valuable functions and open the door for mobile development.

Key Terms and Concepts

API  Stands for Application Programming Interface. The resource of protocols and languages used for developing compatible applications.
Bandwidth   The volume (capacity) of data available or the speed at which data can be transferred across a network (measured in bits/s).
Blackberry A popular smartphone.
Development Platform  A multimedia system that is used to develop an application.
Emulator    Software which emulates a particular handset or model for software testing.
Firmware    Intrinsic software which is stored in permanent memory (ROM or PROM) or other hardware location to control a specific device function. May be upgradeable to fix bugs or enable new features.
IMEI    Stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity, a serial number unique to each GSM device.
iPhone   . Apple's highly successful smartphone
MXit    A popular mobile Instant Messaging platform.
Open Source  Open source software with freely available and modifiable source code.
OS   Stands for Operating System. The essential base software of a system.
SDK   Stands for Software Developer's Kit. The set of tools and information a developer needs to create an application.
Tethering    Connecting a desktop PC or laptop, which otherwise cannot connect by itself, to the Internet using a connected mobile device.
VoIP    Stands for Voiceover Internet Protocol, also known as IP Telephony. Allows for telecommunication over the Internet. Skype and fring are popular examples of VoIP software.
xHTML    A version of HTML which adheres to the XML language standards.
XML    Stands for EXtensible Mark-up Language, used for mobile development.

Operating Systems

Some of the more advanced operating systems include Windows Mobile, OS 3.0 iPhone on the Apple iPhone, Linux on the Blackberry and Google Android. All of these have their own unique features as well as areas where consumer demand has forced third-party solutions.

Before we get started on the applications, here’s a guide to the more advanced development platforms:

  • Java Micro Edition (JavaME) was developed as a downscaled version of the Java language and is often used for games and other applications.
  • JavaFX Mobile is another mobile derivative of Java, designed to allow applications to access the Internet across many different connection types and run on many operating systems, including Google Android and Windows Mobile.
  • Open C/C++ is a development environment for Nokia’s S60 smartphone platform. Nokia describes it on their website as “ideal for porting PC applications to S60 devices, as well as creating application engines and middleware.”
  • Python by Nokia is a popular development platform for Symbian OS - based smartphone applications.

Developing for Advanced Devices and Smartphones

 Windows Mobile: Third-party software development that is available for the Windows Mobile OS. It allows for third-party development with Windows Mobile SDKs and Visual Studio, or Visual C++, Lexico and NS Basic.

iPhone: Unfortunately, the iPhone OS does not support Java or Flash, but upgraded firmware can handle Scalable Vector Graphics scripts. The iPhone SDK is the environment for iPhone development.

Symbian OS: This consists of the S60, Series 80, Series 90 and UIQ. Open C/C++ is the native programming language, but Python for S60, ported by Nokia, is fast becoming popular as well.

Symbian OS is in the process of switching to Open Source – read more about this at the Symbian Foundation’s website.

Maemo Linux: Maemo Linux is an open source platform designed by Nokia for use on the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet.

Android: Powered by Linux, Google Android allows for Java development through the Android SDK and while other languages like C are supported on the OS, they are not endorsed by Google.

Functional Mobile Applications

 For entertainment or to serve a function such as on-the-go publishing or social bookmarking, mobile services and applications can be extremely engaging for the community.

Here’s a list of the more popular mobile applications currently installed and in use on phones and other mobile devices around the world:

Opera Mini

Like most Opera products, Opera Mini is a popular piece of free software (freeware). The mobile application, which Opera claims is the 'world’s most popular mobile Web browser' compresses web pages to increase speed and reduce data download costs – extremely effective for those with bandwidth concerns.

Opera Mini converts more websites for mobile screens than most bundled browsers, making it very popular.  It also has a lot more features that many other mobile browsers have not yet included. These include extended navigation, history and bookmarking functions among others.  

The MXit free Instant Messaging (IM) software made waves when it started becoming the preferred means of communication for many of the younger market in its home country, South Africa. 

Early adopters were plentiful. These were  mostly teens looking to communicate over a quick and cheap platform. There are various versions of MXit designed for use on different devices. Examples are desktop based versions, Facebook apps and even connecting phones and PCs for seamless communication.

Twitter and Facebook Apps
Of all third-party mobile applications, social networking software is one of the more popular categories, connecting mobile users to their Twitter and Facebook accounts via condensed applications.

These types of conduit applications to social media sites are quite common, with various software options for the many networking sites and phones. Take a look at MySpace mobile for Blackberry as an example.

Many social network websites have third-party mobile versions created using APIs, offering access (and often novel features and functions) to the platforms without having to download an application or navigate to the primary site. 

For example: vs. (with additional features such as Twitpic previews).

Beyond social networking, EyeOS is a ‘cloud computing Operating System’ which allows for remote access to your desktop or laptop so you can control your office or personal computer while roaming.

Ushering in the anticipated standard of telecoms, the fring client provides VoiP (Voice over IP) communication. What is VoIP? Instead of using traditional telephone networks, audio is converted into a digitally compressed fromat and transferred via the Internet. As it uses WiFi technology beyond the GSM network, telecommunication has potential to become much cheaper.

fring also connects many, if not all of the popular Instant Messaging platforms (such as GTalk and MSN) into one, easy to use application.

fring allows users to connect to the following Social Media and networking platforms:

  • MSN Messenger
  • GoogleTalk
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Skype
  • AIM
  • ICQ

Google Applications

There’s just no escaping the magic that is Google and their ever-ingenious developments. Although many of the online applications can be run via more advanced browsers, there are also plenty dedicated applications created to provide Google services to mobile Internet users.

Google Maps makes it easier for users to find places and get directions when they’re out and about. As for Gmail – yep yep, you guessed it; access to Google’s amazing mail service from your mobile phone. Nifty apps such as the Blogger mobile application allow users to blog from anywhere and upload multimedia content via direct MMS.

While many of Google’s applications are JavaME based, some are platform specific and can only be used on certain devices, most notably Android, iPhone and S60. Google recently released an S60 mobile application which links up all their services in one application, including domains (which can link you up to your organisations mail, calendar and documents).

iPhone Apps
It goes without saying that iPhone applications are the most marketable at the moment. Most of the mobile apps we’ve discussed so far, are free, as many iPhone applications are – but they’re also big business.

Popular iPhone apps include everything from Web browsers and games to iPhone specific versions of other applications. These include apps like Google Earth and even novel products like RJDJ. The latter is an interactive application which uses the Apple iPhone motion sensors and background noise to ‘create’ music.

Information services are also extremely popular, offering information such as weather forecasts and TV listings. Commercial applications also include downloadable books, music and other multimedia entertainment options.

There are literally millions of applications created for the iPhone by Apple, third-party companies and individuals. Many of which are available for free, but most iPhone applications cost upwards of $0.99. 

Version 3.0 of the iPhone OS allows for what Apple call ‘in-app purchases’, which allow developers to sell products and services directly through applications. Billing occurs via the iTunes store (of which Apple takes a deserved cut).

Blackberry Applications
Like the software created for the Apple iPhone, Blackberry programs are generally inexpensive, but provide great functions for which the smartphone using public have no problem paying a nominal fee for. Some of these provide necessary services such as RSS feed readers while others are created purely for novelty value.

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