What's an iOS? Smartphone Users Don't Know

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- American consumers know they want smartphones, but are still mostly clueless about the software running them.

Just as Apple ( AAPL) launched its iOS 4.1 for the iPhone earlier this week, a study from Forrester Research ( FORR) found that nearly half of American smartphone owners don't know what operating system their phone uses. Of the more than 30,000 smartphone users Forrester asked about which brand of phone they owned, which features it includes and whether it runs Google's ( GOOG) Android or Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows Mobile operating system, 48% got the operating system wrong.

That number includes 13% who said their phone used both and roughly 18% of Research in Motion ( RIMM) Blackberry users and iPhone users who credited Android or Windows with running their phones. With Verizon ( VZ), AT&T ( T), T-Mobile ( DT) and Sprint ( S) each supporting four smartphone platforms or more, multiple manufacturers including Motorola ( MOT), Samsung and HTC producing Windows and Android phones and mobile applications growing into a $6.7 billion industry encompassing 4.5 billion downloads, according to Gartner ( IT), the potential for confusion is high.

If Blackberry devices and the RIM OS were still leading in mobile market share with Apple following behind -- as ComScore ( SCOR) reported in May when RIM held a 41.7% share to Apple's 24.4% -- the situation may not seem as dire. Apple and RIM have proprietary holds over their hardware and software that makes it difficult, but apparently not impossible, to mistake the two. Since the NPD Group reported in August that Android phones had surged to a 33% market share compared with RIM's 28% and Apple's 22%, though, a different set of problems has emerged.

There's a reason Google has place its Web and mobile development on equal footing, Microsoft scrapped and rewrote its entire mobile platform for Windows Mobile 7, H-P ( HP) paid $1.2 billion for Palm ( PALM) and its WebOS and Nokia ( NOK) teamed up with Intel ( INTC) on its MeeGo OS to replace the Symbian OS (which still has 41% of global market share): Mobile matters. It's why Google's Android grew from 1.8% global market share in August 2009 to a more than 17% share today and why Gartner expects mobile applications alone to account for $29 billion in global revenue by 2013.

Yet Google, Microsoft and others haven't been nearly as effective in differentiating their platform as their competitors at RIM and Apple. Android products not specifically named Droid are more associated with the phone's brand than with the software on it, which Forrester found especially true with HTC phones that hide the OS behind their own interface. Part of the blame rests with service providers such as Sprint and T-Mobile, whose stores and websites are inconsistent in their OS branding of Android and Windows devices.

Much of the blame, though, rests with Google and Microsoft themselves, as Google minimizes and misnames its Android Market logo on its devices and doesn't use the Android logo on its Market page at all. Microsoft, meanwhile, doesn't include a Windows logo anywhere but on the start button of its operating platform. Neither has shown much will or desire to ensure that carriers, independent retailers such as Best Buy ( BBY) and Radio Shack ( RSH) or app developers appropriately market their OS.

This presents several pitfalls for consumers, who may have difficulty downloading the right applications if they have no idea what their OS is and could lose the applications they have if they choose to upgrade to an incompatible device. While Android's success in the smartphone industry is promising for Google and other upstarts, its rapid rise is a warning that many smartphone consumers have the memory of a goldfish -- and that a year from now a weakly branded OS can be just another plastic castle in the tank.

--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.