When Apple introduced its iPhone in 2007, it revolutionized a handset market previously saturated with poorly designed and poorly implemented software. Its rapid sales woke up an industry to new consumer expectations and new demand for smartphones with a slick interface. For many smartphone customers, it is no longer acceptable for a phone to merely perform its functions — it must perform them quickly and smoothly as well.

In light of these new realities, companies jumped onto the wagon and began reacting to the changing attitudes. Suddenly, there are several new players to a smartphone operating system market that as recently as two years ago was only truly occupied by Windows Mobile and Blackberry. After Apple’s iPhone OS debuted, Google and its Open Handset Alliance introduced the Android Operating system. Not long after that, Palm introduced its new WebOS. In the near future, Microsoft is also expected to debut the next version of Windows Mobile, Windows Mobile 7, which should represent a departure from many of the traditional Windows Mobile problems.

But with this newly competitive market, new issues emerge. How can the industry sustain so many competitors? In the long run, which operating systems will stand above the rest?

The iPhone OS is considered the gold standard for smartphone operating systems, the measuring point for all other systems. Its slick home-screen interface, its familiar dock, its relative quickness and smoothness, and its visual attractiveness have pushed it to the front of the pack. Partnered with AT&T, Apple enjoys a large head start as well as a large existing user base from the iPod and the Macintosh line of personal computers.

Yet the system is not without its share of problems. There have been complaints about AT&T’s spotty 3G data service and the expensive monthly plans required upon purchase of the phone. Also, some users have complained about the lack of a physical keyboard.

Google’s Android system has failed to gain the traction that had been anticipated, in large part due to the big, clunky hardware chosen as the debut vehicle. T-Mobile’s G1 would have been successful had it not been compared to the iPhone. But comparison is unavoidable, and the G1’s sole advantage in having a physical keyboard is greatly outweighed by the iPhone’s greater overall aesthetic package, slimmer profile and multi-touch display. Furthermore, T-Mobile’s 3G data network is still in its infancy and has not reached many markets, including New Haven.

Finally, the recently released Palm WebOS has demo-ed remarkably well. The system is built on Web standards, making application development easy and accessible. Palm has partnered with Sprint to deliver the first device to run WebOS, the Pre, sometime in the first half of 2009. In live demos of the device, Palm has shown off a smooth, high-resolution interface, extremely tight integration with online services, and appealing hardware complete with a physical keyboard. However, it is difficult to judge the overall quality of the phone without a released model on the market.

By 2010, the handset market will look markedly different. Perhaps all of the aforementioned operating systems will succeed in their own right, sharing the newfound demand for visually attractive, flashy smartphones. But with so many competitors — Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, WebOS — it is likely that at least one will fall to the bottom of the pile and suffer low sales.

Only time will tell which one will be the first to fall.