The most prevalent types of phones today are smart phones running the iOS operating system from Apple or the Android operating system from Google. You can only run iOS on Apple iPhones when it comes to phones, but Android runs on a wide range of different kinds of phones. Other cellphone systems without smart phone capability are also available, though they've become less popular in recent years.
Smart Phones and Feature Phones
Today, cellphones are largely divided into smart phones and feature phones. Smart phones are generally distinguished by touch-screen interfaces, speedy internet access, a wide array of installable applications and a tall and wide but thin body. They've arguably come to displace desktop and laptop computers as today's dominant computing tools.
Some signature modern software applications, such as social networking apps from Facebook and Snap, dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble, ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft and music apps like Spotify and Apple Music, are available exclusively, or at least widely used, on smart phones.
Most present-day feature phones are flip phones, which feature a phone and dialing pad that can be be opened with the flip of a hand, while some are so-called "candy bar" phones, which feature a screen and keypad with no cover. They generally use physical buttons rather than touch screens.
Smart phones have become more prevalent in recent years, thanks in part to their wide range of useful features, including navigation apps, access to email and high-speed web browsing and popular social applications. Still, while feature phones are occasionally derived as "dumb phones," they do retain a loyal following for the long battery lives, simple interfaces, low prices and durability.
Most cellphone carriers can support both smart phones and feature phones. Plans for feature phones are often less expensive.
Apple, iPhone and iOS
Apple's iPhone operating system is among the most popular cellphone operating systems in the world. First released in 2007, it introduced or helped popularize many of the features now considered standard on smart phones, including a touch-screen interface with few or no physical buttons, a web browser comparable to those found on traditional computers and an app market where users can buy and download third-party software.
Apps sold in the market, known as the App Store, must comply with Apple's standards and receive approval from the company before they can be offered to the public.
The iPhone operating system, dubbed iOS, doesn't run on a long list of mobile devices. Instead, it can be installed only on iPhones and other Apple devices, including the iPad line of tablet and iPod Touch, which is similar to an iPhone but lacks calling capabilities. All three devices are in some ways descendants of the original iPod, Apple's popular music player that became the dominant pre-smart phone device for portable music and introduced the world to the podcast, a form of downloadable radio program.
Apple has been known for its willingness to take risks with the platform, including controversially removing features like a physical headphone jack and using power cables not compatible with other makers' cellphones; introducing high-resolution screens and cameras that kept the phones expensive; and rolling out the costly iPhone X and other high-end devices. So far, the devices have largely proved a hit with consumers, with Apple among the most valuable companies in the world and the best-selling cellphone makers.
Google and Android Devices
When it comes to mobile operating systems, the main rival to iOS today is Google's Android operating system, usually considered to be the most popular operating system in the world. Unlike iOS, the operating system can be run on a variety of devices from a number of different manufacturers, with some of the more popular Android phones being those made by Samsung, LG and HTC. Google does produce some phones of its own, such as those under the Pixel line.
Android phones are available at a variety of different price points and sizes, with somewhat more variety than is available for Apple devices. The two operating systems work fairly similarly, letting users use a touch screen to activate and interact with apps installed over the internet from app markets. The Google Play Store is the equivalent of Apple's App Store for Android, and many apps are available with similar or identical features in each store.
Some Android devices can also be operated with a stylus, such as Samsung's popular Note series of phones. A few, like the Android phones currently made by BlackBerry, also ship with a physical keyboard.
Android apps are also sometimes compatible with some Chromebook devices, which are laptops that run a separate operating system from Google.
The Age of BlackBerry
Starting in the early 2000s, BlackBerry phones began to pave the way for many of the features consumers now expect from today's iPhone and Android smart phones. The devices offered not only calling but also access to various productivity apps and, perhaps most important to many business users who adopted them, email. They were developed by a Canadian company called Research in Motion that later changed its name to simply BlackBerry.
BlackBerry phones also supported an instant messaging service called BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, a forerunner to today's instant messaging tools like Apple's iMessage, Facebook's WhatsApp and Google Hangouts. BBM allowed BlackBerry users to communicate, even internationally or across cellphone networks, often without adding anything to their phone bills. It became popular both with business users of the devices and those just looking to use them to connect with friends.
The devices were also beloved by many users for their tiny physical keyboards, which made two-handed typing of emails and documents possible. Some also offered a trackball usable like a mouse or trackpad on a traditional computer. Devices using only touch screens, released by BlackBerry after Apple and Android devices began to become more popular, mostly weren't as popular with BlackBerry users.
Ultimately, the BlackBerry line began to fall behind touch screen-based smart phones when it came to features and app availability. Today, BlackBerry has become less popular, but the Canadian-based company still offers a range of phones running Android.
Microsoft's Types of Phones
Microsoft's Windows operating system has been dominant on desktop and laptop computers for decades, but the company struggled to find its footing when it came to the world of mobile phones.
The company produced a variety of operating systems under various names that were mostly variations on Windows Mobile and Windows Phone, and later versions of the operating system received praise from critics and users for a tile-based interface that was arguably more different from Android and iOS than the two dominant smart phones systems are from each other.
But, compared to Android, the Windows operating systems were never available on such an extensive line of phones, and the company often struggled to recruit the creators of popular third-party apps to build versions for its systems, leaving would-be users feeling they'd have to abandon favorite software to switch to Windows phones.
In 2017, Microsoft announced that it would cease releasing new devices running Windows 10 Mobile, its most recent version of the operating system.
- Statista: Subscriber Share Held by Smart Phone Operating Systems in the United States From 2012 to 2018
- History Cooperative: iPhone History: 2007-2019
- Forbes: Apple Report Reveals Expensive New iPhone Secret
- Investopedia: Eight of the World's Top Companies Are American
- Android Police: Samsung Rolls Android 9 Pie Out to the Verizon and Unlocked Note 9
- BlackBerry Mobile: Homepage
- Lifewire: The 8 Best Basic Cellphones of 2019
- Pocket-Lint: The History of Blackberry: The Best BlackBerry Phones That Changed the World
- MobiForge: Windows Phone: A History
- Google: Install Android Apps on Your Chromebook