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The casual consumer's misunderstanding of Android
Google designed Android to be a simple experience, but if you were new to the platform, you probably wouldn’t know that. When most manufacturers produce a new Android-based smartphone, it’s typically Google’s software buried under a layer of homegrown gunk. This includes pre-loaded applications and a replacement UI often referred to as a “skin.”
Software like Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense are among some of the more popular third-party interfaces used with Android, but there are countless others. And while some of the best Android-powered devices on the market use manufacturer-built software, there’s a nasty consequence that comes with this practice. Due to the popularity of gadgets like Samsung’s Galaxy Note product line and HTC’s One series, some casual tech fans are under the impression that these third-party developed interfaces are coming straight from Google.
Google designed Android to be a simple experience, but if you were new to the platform, you probably wouldn’t know that.
If you’re an Android enthusiast, this might be shocking, but rest assured, it’s true. After years of being a dedicated iPhone user, my uncle recently decided to give Google’s mobile operating system a shot. He ended up buying an LG G3 and while he was impressed by the phone’s potent hardware, its software was a completely different story. He told me it had “too much going on” and asked why Google made it that way? And then it hit me. He actually thought that Google designed LG’s skinned version of Android. After physically showing him the difference between stock Android and third-party UIs, I realized that a high number of casual smartphone and tablet users probably shared the same beliefs.
This is definitely a problem and it could possibly be hurting Android’s progress as a platform. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about it for a bit.
Not everyone is a tech expert looking for quad-core processors and extra gigabytes of RAM. Some people simply want an affordable device and often settle for budget-friendly mid-range gear. This already places them at a slight disadvantage when using Android for the first time, because they’re most likely getting a subpar experience with outdated core software. On top of that, if someone buys a handset made by a company like Samsung and doesn’t enjoy TouchWiz; it could quite possibly impact their opinion of Android as a whole.
This issue doesn’t just stop at cheap bargain bin devices either. Third-party UIs also have an impact on high-end gadgets as well. Think about it. How many times has one of your not so tech savvy friends asked you about a new flagship Android phone? If they’re coming from a fairly uniform platform like iOS or even BlackBerry OS, odds are they’ll expect a similar experience. Unfortunately, this is what happened with my uncle and after a few months, it sent him running back to an iPhone.
Why do Android Skins Exist in the First Place?
Remember, Android is a simple operating system at its core. Google designed it to be open and developer-friendly, so it was literally built to be tinkered with from day one. And with an almost innumerable number of hardware partners across the globe, Android is a highly competitive platform.
Manufacturers often go too far and we end up getting phones and tablets with remarkable hardware, weighed down by clunky software.
In addition to designing devices with unique form factors, equipment manufacturers add homemade software and hardware features to their products in order to stand out. Just imagine the exact same phones being released over and over again every few weeks. A world without third-party UIs would be loaded with this type of cycle. Globally recognized firms such as Samsung, LG, Sony, HTC, Motorola and Xiaomi are all competing for relevance in a very crowded space. On paper, the addition of exclusive software is a practical way to offer an improved user experience. Sadly, however, manufacturers often go too far and we end up getting phones and tablets with remarkable hardware, weighed down by clunky software.
A Possible Solution
Despite the fact that countless mobile devices ship with skinned versions of Android, some companies actually do release products with stock software. However, these handsets and tablets are typically launched under Google’s Nexus product line. When producing new Nexus equipment, Google collaborates with a third-party manufacturer, but oversees the device’s design, development and future support. This often results in faster system updates, superior hardware performance and a reduced software footprint.
Nexus phones and tablets are typically released each year, but sadly they’re almost advertised like any other third-party flagship device, if not less. This could possibly be vanilla Android’s biggest missed opportunity.
In order to help average Joes understand the difference between stock Android and replacement UIs, Google needs to tweak its marketing
In order to help average Joes understand the difference between stock Android and replacement UIs, Google needs to tweak its marketing. The search giant has produced some great ad campaigns over the years, however it really should drive home the fact that its Nexus gear runs pure Android. The company should do all it can to stress that this is the best its mobile operating system has to offer and be sure to let consumers know why. In addition to talking up its in-house software, Google could use this new sales pitch to discuss what its partners bring to the table.
Manufacturer developed software enhancements actually aren’t all bad. In fact, some phones like the Moto X offer a near-stock Android experience paired with a few nifty extras. The idea here isn’t about steering new users towards one direction over another. It’s about helping Joe Q. Public understand the advantages that come with using Android and how the platform has an almost limitless number of possibilities.
Google’s mobile OS may have the biggest slice of the smartphone pie, but there’s always room for improvement. While most hardcore tech enthusiasts consider third-party Android UIs an abomination, these sentiments actually only come from a small group of purists. Like my uncle, most consumers don’t even know what version of Android their smartphone is running, let alone if it’s stock or not.
A possible remedy for this situation could be Google releasing multiple Nexus devices throughout the year, or the company working with its partners to produce more hardware loaded with stock software. Until then, the folks in Mountain View will have to settle for a large number of potential customers thinking all Android-powered devices run TouchWiz or Sense.