Could Android L signal a new era of lightweight near-stock OEM skins?

July 17, 2014

android-l

As a Nexus 5 user, I’m a bit of a stock Android fan, largely because I’ve experienced deeply-skinned Android before and have found, while it adds some unique and interesting features, it brings plenty of bloat and arguably adds towards the perception that Android is a fragmented mess.

There was a time when Android was very raw, and so it was important for manufacturers to take this raw experience and enhance it. Today stock Android is fast, fluent and dramatically better than both older versions of stock Android and many of the customized Android skins still being pushed by manufacturers.

there is early evidence that suggests the days of heavily-skinned OEM experiences may be over

So are OEM skins still needed? That’s a good question. On one side of the fence, there’s the fact that Android is built on the idea that one size doesn’t fit all, so custom skins allow someone to find an Android look and feel that most closely meets what they are personally looking for. On the other hand, skins add bloat and, especially for new Android users, can add further confusion when it comes to buying a new Android-powered handset.

Regardless of your take on the situation, there is at least some early evidence that suggests the days of heavily-skinned OEM experiences may be over. First, we’re seeing more OEMs push their apps and services to Google Play, which could be the first step towards bringing these apps out of the Sense or Touchwiz blanket. Both LG and Samsung’s most recent devices also saw a minor push-back in the number of new features/apps being added to their skins. Even more important is the impending arrival of Android L and the rumored Android Silver program, both of which could signal an age where heavily-skinned Android is a thing of the past.

How Android L might fit into a new age of lighter stock-like OEM skins

Here’s the big question: what can Google do to convince OEMs to move away from heavily customized skins? While we can’t say for sure, Android L seems to go a long way towards settling some of the differences between stock Android and the extra features provided by OEMs.

Things like the ability to search in settings, a Do Not Disturb Mode and even the new quick settings all resemble features we’ve seen in other custom skins. Heck, even parts of Samsung’s Knox are making it into Android L, via the new Android for Work feature. Additionally, the more vibrant, flatter interface of Android L seems to fit the distinctive and bold colors we’ve seen in recent versions of skins from HTC, Samsung and LG.

Android L seems to go a long way towards settling some of the differences between stock Android and OEM skins

Android L represents a big change for Google, and Material Design helps unify the entire Google experience across all devices and Google-backed platforms. Changes like the introduction of a Developer Preview also make it clear that Google has something different in store for Android’s direction. Of course, it’s unclear if OEMs and developers will get behind this change. If rumors about Android Silver prove true, however, Google could use the program to ease OEMs into the transition.

android-one-micromax-sub-100

How Android One and Android Silver might change the game

At Google I/O Sundar Pichai took the wraps off the Android One program, a new effort designed to bring decent budget handsets to emerging markets through a partnership with carriers, OEMs like Micromax and, of course, Google. The idea is that Google will provide basic reference designs for manufacturers based on decent yet affordable parts. Once an OEM produces a handset based on approved specs, it will be brought to consumers at sub-$100 prices and will receive updates to its stock Android OS directly from Google.

The idea is that Google is hoping to raise the bar on budget devices in terms of specs, while helping fight fragmentation issues by providing up-to-date Android experiences to these devices for, presumably, at least 18 to 24 months. When this was first announced, it sounded very familiar to many of us, as the long-rumored Android Silver program is said to be based on a similar model, albeit with a focus on higher-end smartphones in markets such as the United States and Europe.

Android Silver and Android One could do wonders for ending fragmentation

We still don’t know exactly what Google intends to do with the Android One and Silver initiatives, or even if the latter of these is anything more than a rumor. That said, Google is said to be investing at least $16 million into marketing Android One in India, and reportedly will invest even more into Android Silver went it debuts in 2015. If all of this is true, that means Google really wants Android Silver (and One) to take off, and why not?

After all, Android Silver and Android One could do wonders for ending fragmentation and might even be enough to convince many manufacturers to ditch their custom skins in favor of letting Google handle the software updating. This not only would please those of us that like an up-to-date Android experience, it would also allow manufacturers to focus on creating exceptional hardware and value-added software as opposed to heavy-weight skins.

samsung galaxy s5 vs nexus 5 8

What stands in the way of this change?

If you like stock Android, the idea of Android Silver and Android L ushering in change sounds wonderful, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are reasons why manufacturers would still want deeper control over the Android builds on their devices. As already mentioned above, OEM skins allow manufacturers to change up Android to create an experience that consumers recognize as unique and this is important for brand recognition, but it’s about more than just that. Having a custom skin allows companies like Samsung to better integrate their own apps and services into Android, as opposed to focusing solely on Google’s apps and services.

Another reason is that not everyone likes stock Android. There are folks that still legitimately prefer Sense or Touchwiz over stock. Of course, neither Android L or even Android Silver necessarily mean the end of skins. It’s less about killing off OEM skins, and it’s more about de-bloating them while unifying the Android experience.

OEM skins allow manufacturers to change up Android to create an experience that consumers recognize and this is important for brand recognition

In a perfect scenario, manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC could still keep many of their third-party apps and services, while also still customizing icons and making other minor changes to stock Android. The big difference here is that the overall core experience would be nearly the same in terms of settings, notification trays, etc. The end result would be an experience that still looks like Touchwiz or Sense, but with much less bloat and with the ability to easily remove most/all of the added features for those looking for a nearly-complete stock setup. Sure, Samsung, LG and HTC might have to change some features to comply with this lighter skinned approach, but they would also gain the ability to update their devices much faster when new versions of Android arrive, which would be a major win for Android users everywhere.

Bottom-line, Android L shows signs that Google is working to implement the best possible features from custom skins, and efforts like Android for Work show Google is willing to collaborate with OEMs when it comes to software as well. If future versions of Android continue this trend, there could come a day when skinned Android makes little sense for developers (pun intended).

Will Android L, or even Android Silver, instantly herald such a change? Probably not, but they could be important baby steps towards unifying the Android experience in the years to come. Is this even what Android users want, though? The answer to that will probably vary, though don’t hesitate to vote in our poll or let us know your take in the comments below!

Do you like the idea of OEMs making the move to lighter skins?

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Comments

  • Bryce

    Personally, i like skins because I think that they add a bit of diversity to the Android ecosystem. The only skin that I have used as party of my daily driver is HTC Sense and to this day, I don’t believe that anything (not even stock Android) could top it. HTC has been slimming down their skins but theres is still value to be held in having it on your device.

    You could always make the argument that, skins = bloat, but my HTC device duns feels like it’s running bloatware. Instead it feels as if it is running a super smooth, sleek, form of Android with tons of interesting features.

    • AS

      you ever used AOKP, Cyanogen, OmniRom or Paranoid Android?

      Seriously, all of them blow the crap out of Sense, both in features and speed

      • MJay

        Everyone does not want to have to go through the hassle of flashing ROMs and rooting in order to use those features. They are not worth it. I do not understand why Google does not just add full customization to stock android ( change battery icon color and the whole 9 on stock android).

        • AS

          I totally agree, some people don’t want to trouble of rooting and installing custom a ROM.

          This has absolutely no bearing on my original comment though.

      • http://www.rubenalamina.mx/ Ruben Alamina

        I agree with Bryce on HTC’s Sense. It’s light, well designed and uniform on all their apps.
        Right now I’m using my HTC One M7 with CyanogenMod and also have tried the stock GPE ROM. In my experience, Sense is faster than CM and stock Android, and by a long shot. I didn’t experience a little lag while scrolling on apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the app drawer, etc. until I tried CM11 and stock Android on my phone. That speaks well of Sense in terms of adding performance or smoothing the UI experience for the user.

        • AnonGuy

          Even TouchWiz is uniform in its own apps. The issue people have are the added apps (BlinkFeed, My Magazine, etc.) And the fact that it looks different from Stock. The article itself is perpetuating the idea that Android is slow and Bloated in its attempt to bash skins. My Note 3 never lags or stutters, or drops frames (can’t say the same for a G3) and whatever I don’t want I can disable and never update the apps.

          That doesn’t change the fact that Samsung was over a year ahead of Google in multiple areas that do matter. Why should they destroy their investment now? Gear Watches, S Voice, S Health, Story Album, S Note etc. we’re there when Google gave us nothing comparable to them, and they still offer a ton of functionality that Google doesn’t offer cause their apps are quite bare.

          I prefer the look of TouchWiz. Even Samsung Keyboard is better than Google Keyboard. There is no way I’d buy a Samsung device if it came with stock, even for half the price. The user experience is that bad to me and I’m 100% serious when I say that.

          • AS

            “…and whatever I don’t want I can disable and never update the apps.”

            I assume you actually wanted the recent ‘security’ update that included Knox 2.0 then?

      • cizzlen

        Well, that’s just like, your opinion, man. I have used them before and agree with everything MJ said below. Rooting and ROMs are tiring, and especially not for the general public. Another weak argument from the stock nerds.

        • AS

          I’m not saying it’s a simple task to install a ROM, but that’s an entirely different question.

          What I am saying, is installing a ROM gives you the more features and allows the unused stuff to be stripped away.

          That’s not an opinion, it is fundamentally Inherent in the concept.

          Now what IS a weak argument is the Straw Man you just used

      • KingofPing

        “Seriously, all of them blow the crap out of Sense, both in features and speed”

        *laughing*

        That was just too funny. Have you used Sense 6.0?

        • AS

          It’s always funny when someone responds without having ANY understanding of why they are arguing. It really shows off their ignorance

          • Ah, you think you’re clever.

            You think you’re having an argument.

            That is what is funny.

            (Well, that and your original statement…speaking of ignorance.)

          • AS

            well done, another witless and totally empty comment.

            If you have something to add to the thread, please join in, but if you’re here simply to troll, I’d rather you went elsewhere

      • Bryce

        I’m not into rooting and flashing a ROM. In general most of the people buying Android devices aren’t into nor are they familiar with the term.rooting. I feel that when you take your phone out of the box, Sense is easily one of the best, if not the best experience out there.

        • David Gabel

          Compared to TouchWiz, Sense is not too shabby.

  • Lakshay

    For me Stock works the best, but just realized a downside of it too.
    Though it very simple and minimalistic, but brand skins and functionality have their own fun.
    I just received a Moto G for my dad today and after two minutes there was no excitement of a new device coz the interface looked exactly like my Nexus 5.
    So it’s just gonna b a personal preference I would say. Keep calm coz the future seems exciting.

    • Sunny

      You can always get tons and tons of features on stock if you are rooted.
      Just flash Cyanogenmod or Paranoid Android :P

      • AnonGuy

        Yes. Gonna tell my mom who can barely pin a tile to her start screen to hack her phone and install a custom ROM to recover features she lost going from TW to stock. No offense, but I kinda have become convinced that some of you people are living in the twilight zone. Your completely out of touch with reality.

        Google needs to focus more on the user experience. Making it look different, yet again, isn’t going to change why I think stock is horrible. Given what I seen at I/O it will only make me avoid it further.

  • MasterMuffin

    Samsung, LG and HTC won’t start making lighter skins. Stock Android has constantly become better and better, both in functionality and looks. Still, skins have become heavier and heavier. HTC did a wonderful thing with Sense 5, refreshing it so that it felt good, new and light, but it’s still as heavy as it ever was. From S2 days, TW has become heavier on a steady basis. I haven’t followed LG that much, but it seems like they’re pretty much the same as Samsung.

    I was once a lover of skins. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, either when the JB update came to S2 or when I got my S3, but I noticed that stock Android was just so much faster, felt cleaner and I didn’t really miss 90% of the features that I had with a skin.

    Oh I completely forgot to talk about Sony. Got my first Sony phone a week ago, convinced my father to buy himself a Z2 (yea technically not mine, but he doesn’t know how to use it, so I play with it a lot). Though I think Sony’s skin is otherwise great (Timescape of whatever it’s called), they too add too much, especially apps. First thing I did when the phone arrived was delete or disable 10+ useless apps. Why do they have FB and some random bad file manager pre-installed?? So Sony’s skin is far from perfect too (but the hardware is sssexy).

    Completely forgot the point of my comment again. I’ll just go to sleep now. T_T

    “will invest even more into Android Silver went it debuts in 2015.” when? :)

    • Scott Ricketts

      Sense 6 is really light enough to make the experience just as fluid as stock as well as adding some nifty features I actually liked. Running a G2 at the moment but I got an invite and I’m about to pull the trigger on a OnePlus – the idea that I’m getting better quality than a Nexus 5 but it’s open enough that I should have good developer support at $350 is just too tempting. But you are right that ever since ICS I think Google has been moving in the right direction as far as making stock an experience people wanted to buy, as the GPE handsets prove.

      • MasterMuffin

        Haven’t had a chance to play with Sense 6, so can’t deny that :) And get yourself a 1+1!

    • xoj_21

      if i get z2 first thing install cyanogen.. same for lg g3

      • MasterMuffin

        The only big downside is losing the great camera software

        • Jumperone

          I have G2 and i installed AOSP rom. Went back after 2 days, can’t live without lg software, especially g3 rom.

    • KingofPing

      “Samsung, LG and HTC won’t start making lighter skins. ”

      Um, what? Aside from Samsung, both the others … already do. The latest versions of each of their respective skins (HTC and LG) have frequently been proclaimed as their lightest to date.

  • Tjaldid

    After having bought a Nexus 7 I hope that they won’t have to go stock, things like Transparent Nav/Notification bar and knock to unlock are just a few reasons why I will prefer Skins (mostly Sony’s)

    • KingofPing

      I would friggin’ *love* to be able to put Sense 6.0 (with motion gestures) on my Nexus 7 and 10.

  • Joshua D J Bailey

    I have a nexus 7 2013 and have used a nexus 5. For some reason the nexus 5 software is more colourful and transparent. That’s the ideal look android needs. I have seen android 5/L screenshots and I think it looks perfect. It is as bright as Samsung, colourful as lg, simplistic as HTC and sophisticated as Sony. But most of all its as brilliant and iconic as android. It keeps the android feel while trying to satisfy customers of OEM’s and even Apple. That’s why android is so brilliant because its quirky, cool, everyone likes it in one way or another and it continues to reinvent itself with every major update. I don’t see IOS doing that :)

  • AS

    I don’t really care about skins. What I would like is the option to disable the parts I don’t want

  • Japzone

    I’d love it if Google integrated a skin system like what’s in Custom ROMs like Cyanogen. OEMs could include their skin with their phones but if a user doesn’t like it then they could easily disable/remove the skin and replace it with Vanilla Android or some custom skin they downloaded from Google Play. If they did this it would reduce the reasons people root and install Custom ROMs even more, which would make a lot of people happy.

  • TheGCU

    It’s not just as simple as ditching skins. You can replace TouchWiz (sort of) by installing a different launcher, but you’re still dealing with Samsung frameworks, which isn’t compatible with AOSP frameworks. So Samsung apps need to be changed to work on AOSP framework (S-Pen apps for example) in order to ditch TouchWiz and add them to the Play Store. I’m sure its the same with Sense.

  • The-Sailor-Man

    Everything you say , and I agree with that, is IF GOOGLE TAKE ALL THE GREAT FEATURES from Samsung, the stock OS will be good.
    But so far it was HANDICAP ,
    Your headline is manipulating and bashing, thoudh

    • cizzlen

      This. I think people complain about bloat due to the fact that there is a perception it slows down and disrupts the user experience. But in order to fix that problem that means features should be taken away?

      No, this is an Android performance problem and Google needs to fix it without forcing OEMs to go against their primary means of business.

      People used to brag about Android being all the beauty of choice. I see no “choice” in this suggested new direction as evidenced in this article.

      • Thomas

        Stock android runs fine. HTC Sense runs fine. TouchWiz still lags, and yet you blame google for the problem?
        Makes perfect sense.

        • cizzlen

          And HTC is pretty much stock, at least that’s what everyone says. What’s your point? To prove mine?

  • Omar

    I have a Note 3 with TouchWiz on it and I just love all the useful features that come with it except some gimmicks which I don’t use. I also enjoy using stock android on my Nexus 7 2013 and its clean interface.

    • The-Sailor-Man

      Can you connect USB dongle on your Nexus 7 without root?

      • Omar

        Yes.

  • aRei

    In my country many people equates the stock holo interface = cheap, sometimes sluggish due to low cost devices running stock. TouchWiz /iphone = fast/beautiful.

  • Gagandeep Singh

    Customization is the biggest feature of Android because of what I am in love with this green bot.Now I think there will always be people who will never make peace with stock android.Now android L material design looks great but Google can bring only design to its own apps only , so the end of the day it is developers(I mean us ;)) who have to make effort to come up with apps.So there is still plenty of time for Android L to make change.
    Now I do not want OEMs to ditch their custom skins.I use stock Android.but also love sony and htc theme.Never liked Samsung touch wiz(Heavy heavy heavvvvvy).So they should bring L Touch to their skin interactions.

  • David Hunter

    I would appreciate a stock Android on my Z2, without having to root and all that nonsense (and which takes many essential apps off their compatibility lists). The Z2 is a fast phone.. yet it doesn’t feel that fast. It often feels clunky, a prime example is when I press the multi-tasking button, there’s a discernable delay before it reacts and shows me my running apps list. It’s a tad glitchy at times, and I miss my Nexus 5 in that sense, which felt faster. There’s really no need for the Sony skin, but I know it’s one of the less disruptive ones. Just give us stock! We want your great hardware, stop trying to peddle your ecosystems on us (unless they’re actually good and we WANT in).

  • Kinushta

    there are more features in TW that people consider gimmicky but are rather helpful in most cases. Most that I love are the gestures that really help notify the user. Also, the IR, S-Pen, Multi-window, things mentioned above by a previous comment. They are there at stock without the hassle of looking them up on forums, custom roms, and mods. I have a basic knowledge in custom roms and rooting (back in my S3/N2 days, damn Knox – don’t wanna do it yet on my N3) so whenever I replace my rom, I always look for a TW-based one rather than AOSP. There’s these little innovations in TW that I really loved ever since my S3 that’s why I sticked with them. The only thing I want TW to add is the tap to unlock. Mehehe,. Some of my few cents. :)

  • xoj_21

    wont happen for a while which is sad but i do L will make try not to change as much

    TW issue that they have app from gingerbread time and just keep updating it.

    phone , calendar, contacts, email, kikat still look like gingerbread apps on s5
    though they added some kitkat features like transparent status bar and shadows.

    L stock apps look better, by alot/

  • Sequoia46.2

    The general population falls for the brand stuff though so I’m not sure how that will work in marketing and consumer trends if all software is stock.

  • Tommy_Oliver

    Anyone remember back in the Windows Mobile days, with HTC and TouchFLO 3D?

    It was a complete UI change from the (terribad) stock WinMo 6.1 UI, but it was completely optional, it could be disabled in the settings.

    I think skins would be fine if they were just a launcher + custom widgets that could easily be disabled and removed. Forcing a bunch of software down my throat I don’t want is, in my opinion, unacceptable.

  • DarxideGarrison

    the one thing I would really like to see in “L” is a swipe all button for recent running apps.

    • joser116

      That, and a quick way to turn on flashlight.

  • Ruz

    Honestly there are lots and lots of features missing in the stock android which is available in skins.. I like the interface and looks of skins more over stock Android. I am not fan of stock android but those added features and interface is what we need the most.. And to sum it up what will be the difference btw S5 or G3 or Z2 if all has the same features and looks?

  • pizzamannetje

    “ANDROID L SEEMS TO GO A LONG WAY TOWARDS SETTLING SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN STOCK ANDROID AND OEM SKINS”

    This isn’t new. Google has always been importing features of sense, touchwiz, etc in android. And manufacturers have always been adding new features to distinguish themselves.

    Take touchwiz. Samsung won’t suddenly leave out expensive and distinguishing features like multi-window multitasking, easy mode or the S pen features.

  • jules

    From what I’ve seen so far L terrefies me with all the white menus and backgrounds. A roadmap it seems since KK. All the white make gapps useless to me and all but Play Store I have disabled on all my Droid’s. Dark/black with white text I want. White hurts my eyes very fast and kills productivity and content viewing time ability for me. I hate white on mobile so much my iPad Retina is collecting dust only.

    Hope there will be mods to darken Android. But why can’t the choice for users between light and dark Android be implemented in Android? White Android is for me only useful outdoors on burning sun.

    I love Android, but when to blinding tears from eyehurt causing white I hope there will be an alternative.

  • ichuck7

    Google should use cyanogenmod’s theme engine. Then users and OEMS alike could easily customize to their liking but the end user could change it back.

  • Leeroy Jenkins

    will never buy anything but stock or near stock.

  • http://www.rubenalamina.mx/ Ruben Alamina

    If OEM’s are adding real value to their phones, I’m all for it. HTC has done a wonderful job with Sense 5,5.5 and 6.0 adding features and providing a good looking and uniform UI to their phones. I also like that they have been adding this without changing the overall experience on Android with over designed things or useless features. They are keeping a minimal approach, which is what Android needs from OEM in my opinion: to improve on it, not detriment the experience or the performance.

    My HTC One M7 runs faster on Sense than with CM11 or Android stock using the Google Play Edition rom. It’s not even a fair comparison in speed, lag free scrolling, animations and other features.

    Take the
    HTC Gallery as a little example: it can properly show sharp thumbnails
    of PNG file like those in the screenshot folder. Look at the folder
    thumbs on CM Gallery (or their GalleryNext app), AOSP Gallery of Google
    Photos and you will see them blurry with the text jagged. That’s a
    little detail but it shows how something can be improved with OEM
    customizations or apps.

  • joseph carmine nero

    Xperia UI for me is light enough.i hate touchwiz though

    • ChristineDMcKinnis

      Start working at>>CLICK NEXT TAB FOR MORE INFO AND HELP

  • JL

    I tried a Cyanogen ROM on my GT-N7000 and I hated it. I lost all the functionality of my S-Pen, could not do multi-window, and I lost a shitload of valuable toggles in the dropdown. There were more features, but I think you get the idea.

    People like to bash TW, but in reality, it does add a lot of great features to their specialty devices, like the Note. I would never use a Note without TW. I could drop TW on an S3, S4, or S5…but never a Note. People who bash TW obviously have never used a device that really takes advantage of the features.

    Besides…as Android users, we should be smart enough to optimize and tweak our phones so they run better. If you want a phone that takes away the fun of tweaking, get a Crapple device and stop whining. Obviously, people who don’t like to tweak are too stupid to use Android devices anyway.

  • tony solinan

    I’m in favour of getting a nexus5 32gbmodel,for €3-320 euros, as I like stock or
    As close to stock android I can buy!

  • Kyle Kennedy

    If manufacturers would just either sell both types of devices, ie, skinned and non-skinned, or simply make it easy to jump between the two, this wouldn’t be an issue. Instead of locking the phone down, and requiring me to hack drivers and firmware, then find a suitable ROM with half the features broken, like the camera or bluetooth, just give me the option in settings to boot into unskinned mode, or an easy way to grab a purpose-built ROM for your device. Problem solved.