When Android launched in 2008, it didn’t have a very beautiful UI, and the engineers were probably more inclined to make it as functional as possible first. HTC saw this as an opportunity to improve Android’s UI, and to corner the market early on with their own unique looking phones. HTC’s Sense UI was a major improvement over how Android looked before, but unfortunately other manufacturers thought they should follow in HTC’s footsteps and make their own skins as well.
User Experience: Better or Worse?
Not only are most skins out there looking worse than Android stock UI, but they are also not properly optimized and slow down the phones, or don’t work well with some 3rd party apps. The reason for this is that manufacturers care more about launching the phones quickly in the market, than spending a lot of time to polish *their* user interface. They don’t want to use Google’s already optimized version, but they don’t want to spend a lot of time optimizing theirs either, except in some cases for their flagship smartphones. But sometimes they don’t get it right there, either. This has led many Android customers to practically beg manufacturers to make stock Android phones, and they have even asked Google to “force” them to use their vanilla Android. Unfortunately, the manufacturers didn’t want to listen.
Being open source and free, has helped encourage manufacturers to use it, which has led to its explosive growth over the past one and a half years. Android manufacturers love being able to differentiate their phones through their own skins, although I don’t think users see the same value in their skin differentiation. I think most people would like an OS that they could more easily recognize and know how to use everywhere. Let a non-techie buy an Android phone from a manufacturer, and then show him another one from another manufacturer, and he might not immediately get how to use everything in it.
I think a healthy dose of consistency across Android devices, would help users get more comfortable with all Android phones, and want to buy more Android phones in the future. Manufacturers need to learn that what helps the ecosystem, helps each one of them, too. But, at this point, they won’t go back to simply using the stock Android version. So then what?
Solution: A Powerful Theme Engine
Taylor Wimberly at AndroidAndMe seems to think that Android 4.0/Icecream Sandwich will get a theme engine (among other features) that will allow manufacturers to customize Android, without breaking the core Android code. I’ve been wanting this since before Froyo. It seems like the ideal solution to “stop” manufacturers and carriers from messing with Android, while in the same time letting them differentiate theirs phones from one another. Let’s face it. Manufacturers will never accept to have their phones look exactly the same at this point, the same way PC’s work right now. I’m sure WP7 will end up allowing more customization options for manufacturers eventually, and Microsoft has already said they will allow Nokia to customize it more than the others.
A powerful theme engine with somewhat deep customization, should allow manufacturers to make their devices different enough, but in the same time these “themes” should be similar enough, that anyone seeing a phone with any of these themes, would recognize it as an Android phone. This would be Android’s fingerprint. But the advantages should not stop there. The manufacturers would make these themes as beautiful as they can, but you would still be able to disable it anytime you want, and use stock Android theme, or any other theme you want.
These themes would also make the update process a lot smoother and faster for manufacturers. They would be able to update more of their phones, in a shorter amount of time. They won’t have to work as hard on optimizing their own version of Android, and their phones should be less buggy, too.
I don’t know if this theme engine will arrive for sure in Android 4.0, but it should. One reason why I think it will arrive in it is because of the Android Alliance announcement, where they said all those 5 manufacturers (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony, and perhaps more later) will keep *all* their phones updated for a period of 18 months. These manufacturers wouldn’t have agreed to this if Google hasn’t made it easier for them to update their phones with the next version of Android. They all stand to benefit from having a more standardized ecosystem, and it’s especially true for their customers.