Pure Android vs. skins… What’s better?

January 21, 2013
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galaxy-note-2-vs-nexus-4-28

Imagine a world where Samsung and LG made nearly identical devices. Weird, right? Think of your Android world without manufacturer skins on the device. What would life be like without HTC Sense? What if carriers didn’t add bloatware? If everything was pure Android, would you still be interested?

Let’s ponder a world where all Android devices were the same OS; no skins, no bloatware, no fun?

Bad angel

If Android loses its customization, where is the character? What distinguishes one phone from the next? When we say “pure Android”, it’s like saying “vanilla ice cream”. We need toppings! We need something that differentiates from one device from the next! Having one iteration of Android across the board is just silly. The founder of Android has even said we need more customization from device makers.

Customization is why Android is open source. Android not only accepts customization, it encourages it. If every phone looks and acts the same, why not just give up and get an iPhone? Manufacturer skins are important and add a layer of functionality to the device, and carrier apps exist to make your experience as best it can be.

Personality

It’s worth mention that some people buy HTC because they love Sense. It could be said that HTC simply enhanced the Android experience with their take on it, so dismissing it really isn’t all that fair. If a manufacturer is putting all that hardware together, and has a better method for making it work, how is that wrong?

If the argument that skins are somehow wrong is being made, then the argument for skins enhancing a device can also be made. Samsung is the most prolific Android manufacturer on earth, and they skin every one of their devices  with TouchWiz (save for the Nexus devices). 100 million Galaxy devices have been sold, and all have Samsung’s take on Android. If a skin is so terrible, why do so many have devices with them?

 Good Angel

Android is the personality. Each Android iteration gets us closer to a better experience, and putting a skin over it only takes away from what Android really is. The open source nature of Android is simply meant to lend itself to manufacturers making devices for the platform, and should be left at that.

google-halo

Having the same look and feel to Android for all devices is important to success. Fragmentation is a huge problem, and skins only complicate the matter. If we get rid of the skins, we get rid of a lot of fragmentation. The ability to go into a store and decide on a device based on look and feel rather than the interface would be huge for Android. If customers knew they would be getting the Verizon network without all the Verizon bloatware, they would be over the moon about it.

Fixing a problem

We touched on fragmentation a bit, and that deserves to be extrapolated a bit. The reason fragmentation is a problem is due in large part to support of devices by manufacturers and carriers. When a new iteration of Android comes out, manufacturers are left to retrofit it to their devices. On the same token, carriers feel the need to run it through their tests before supporting it. Just about any device that is released will have different hardware and specs, making the retrofitting process time consuming and difficult. It’s a bit like translating a book into 10 different languages, and doing it all at the same time. The task of supporting older devices is hard enough, and adding a skin or bloatware to the process makes it that much harder.

Firestarter

Oh, that pesky Amazon Kindle Fire. It seems to encompass all we hate about things like skins and open source. While brilliant, the Kindle lineup fails miserably in some areas. A severely altered Android experience that hijacks the status quo. It’s seen as something otherworldly, even though it’s Android at the core.

While manufacturer skins are a kind of overlay, the Kindle Fire took customization to the next level. Amazon took an open source platform and made it proprietary. Nearly everything about a Kindle Fire points to you spending money with Amazon. You only have access to their store, and their list of products. You don’t even have Google Chrome!

Amazon Kindle

The Fire gave us many great things, but not a crafty OS in which to hold on high as an example of how good customization can be is not one of them. Many people consider Amazon to have stolen something that was free, and that speaks to how offensive their OS is to Android fans. Let’s not confuse the matter by saying it’s a skin, or even an iteration. They created an entirely new OS from Android, and that was probably taking it too far.

How would a unified Android affect you?

The answer to that depends in large part on what device you have and how it’s used. For many, a pure Android iteration experience is the best. Personally, I enjoy it much more than a skinned device. Prior to my first daily-use Galaxy Nexus, I used an HTC Evo with Sense. I enjoyed Sense quite a bit, and getting used to a seemingly stripped-down version of Android took a little getting used to. Once I navigated the changes, it was heaven for me.

nexus-10-vs-nexus-7-12

Any skin, like Sense, has a few useful bells and whistles. As an example, when I went to use a calculator on my Galaxy Nexus for the first time, there wasn’t one. At first, I thought it silly to leave that out. People use calculators all the time! In objectivity, however, it made sense not to have Sense. I was now free to download any calculator I liked without having to negotiate my way around the stock calculator. What was once a handy set of on-board tools now seemed like wasted space.

Would we all have the same device?

In a very interesting way, yes. We’d all have the same version of an OS, so each device would look the same at the core. That’s not to say Android doesn’t have its obvious personalizion options like wallpaper, widgets, etc. The array of personalization options on the Play Store are amazing, and it seems like each day brings a cool new app or widget for us to try out.

Having the same device is also not a bad thing, necessarily. I have a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 7. I have both set up the exact same, making it easier to switch between devices. If I want to read a story on Google Currents, I know where that app is on each device. I don’t have to pause and consider where it is each time I switch devices. Wake the screen, swipe right, open the folder, select the app. Each time, each device. For those of us who have multiple devices, especially multiple phones, a unified OS could be helpful.

htc-sense

Is a unified OS really better?

That’s a good question. While we can debate the merits of skinned versus stock Android all day long, that’s the end user experience as we see it now. What we can also consider is how those skins came to be, and why dropping them from devices would lead to better hardware.

Let’s take that one word, “device”, and define it a bit for this discussion. In talking about a mobile device, we’re talking about the actual nuts and bolts of a piece of hardware. We’re not concerned with who makes it, or when it came out. If we think about what we have now in a device (dual core, 16GB RAM, 380dpi, etc.), we know those specs exist in the interest of keeping up with us and how we navigate our day.

If we all had a stock Android experience, it may improve your device. If an HTC or Samsung didn’t have to focus energy, time, and money on developing how the OS was used, they could focus a bit more on other problems. Things like battery technology, processor speed, touch interface… those things can always improve. If those companies who utilize an overlay for Android no longer did, the wait for what’s next in terms of hardware could be much shorter.

What are we losing by having a unified Android?

Samsung is doing some very interesting things lately with their devices, which also means their Android skin. Let’s take the very popular Galaxy Note 2 as an example. In that device, there is a function to basically split the screen and have two things open at once: right next to each other, on the same screen, you can work on two separate documents. Search the web and email at the same time… on a mobile device. That’s pretty revolutionary, and only available on the Note series. More to the point, only available on a Samsung device as a result of them modifying Android with TouchWiz.

We can damn manufacturers all we like for altering the way Android is presented on their devices, but innovation is undeniable. TouchWiz is important in that it does much more than change the device appearance and interface. Its got many features and functions that improve your productivity and enjoyment, and that’s what a skin should be about. The concern is that in doing so, Samsung is making TouchWiz a bit too proprietary, and that is something we’d rather not see.

Root access

With a unified Android universe, we would still have ultimate control. We want personality, and that’s why we don’t have iPhones or iPads. We like all the little quirks that come along with Android, even if they leave a month out here or there. Rooting is one of those quirks that push Android ahead of any other OS, and is a great equalizer among devices.

Stock Android is what all those custom ROMs are based on, so in a way… a custom ROM is a skin, too. Many consider a ROM, which is usually open source with a ton of bright people working on it, better than a skin a few dudes locked away in some office at HTC came up with. The rooting community embraces and encourages everyone to pool their intellect and write for a ROM, so what you’re getting is a collective thought. Is that a better concept than being fed a skinned Android?

android customize settings

Another trump card rooting and flashing a ROM has is the ability to choose a theme. Not only can you have a ROM that may improve your device’s utility, but you can also choose (or even design) a theme. You choose the way your device looks and acts, and that is the true brilliance of rooting. A unified Android may encourage more people to take control of their devices.

Conclusion

If we had a pure Android experience, with no manufacturer interference, it would change the landscape very little. Even if you liked the skin your phone has, and could never get it again, there would undoubtedly be a custom ROM mimicking it. You’d simply have to do a little work to get it onto your device. It would also be nice to be able to have some functions available on a device that didn’t have a company protecting it’s intellectual property. If these manufacturers would embrace the open source aspect of Android and let some of their functions go free, we could experience a truly collaborative OS.

We’d also be privy to manufacturers really pushing the envelope with hardware design and function, and that could be great. We may always have the same touchscreen interface, but we may also get phones that blow us away. A more dynamic device lets developers stretch their legs a bit, and a developer with nearly unlimited resources is a wonderful thing.

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