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

July 17, 2014
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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.

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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.

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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!

[poll id="644"]

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