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Counterpoint: stock Android with custom apps may not be the salvation that some think [Poll]

A recent article at Cult of Android suggested that all of the problems OEMs are having could be solved by using stock Android. We respectfully disagree.
July 15, 2013
Notice: Before you read the article, we would very much appreciate it if you took a moment to scroll down to the poll and vote. Of course, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but in a world where bloggers continuously try to tell the world what you, the people want, this is a really good chance to have your voices heard. We’re not going to tell OEMs what you want and we are not so bold as to superimpose our opinions as facts regarding your preferences. Only you can do that.

Yesterday, there was an article posted on Cult of Android by Mike Elgan. The gist of this post was very simple. Mike was, in one article, going to explain what was wrong with the entire smartphone industry and tell OEMs how to make better handsets. Yes, Mike Elgan, tech journalist, was going to tell OEMs a thing or two about the smartphone market. He was going to tell OEMs, who have millions of dollars invested in marketing and consumer research, something they did not know. This was going to be good.

I read through the article and it started out innocently enough. There will be several hundred million people buying smartphones this year. The industry as a whole will make billions. Stuff just about all of us knew already. Then he decided to get into the meat and potatoes of the post. He essentially called all smartphone makers failures. Even Samsung, who’s Galaxy S line up is an annual success. He doesn’t just talk about Android either. He calls Apple, Microsoft, and Blackberry failures too. Apparently, despite the fact that the market is growing by leaps and bounds every year, everyone is somehow failing.

Then he gets into why all these people are failing. Without taking up too much of your time, we’ll paraphrase.

  1. It’s not a Nexus device.
  2. It’s not a Nexus device.
  3. Nexus devices don’t have awesome camera apps like Touchwiz and Sense 5.

And now, here was his winning strategy.

  1. Build more Nexus devices or give phones the ability to transform into a Nexus with a magic Nexus switch. Mike claims no OEM has ever released a high end smartphone with great specs and a Nexus experience. Apparently, the Nexus 4 by LG didn’t fit that criteria. We don’t know why.

Now, there are a few things to point out. He doesn’t necessarily state that OEM skins like Touchwiz or Sense are bad. He simply states that it should be mandatory that they have an off switch where you can revert to stock Android. Something similar to what MoDaCo is doing right now with the HTCOne. On the face this seems perfectly reasonable but, with all the modifications made to Android for Touchwiz and Sense, this would require two operating systems to be installed.

The article had what appeared to have a stellar reception. Even Google’s Vic Gundotra shared it on his Google+ page. For a short time anyway. At the time of this writing, we couldn’t find it so we don’t know what happened there.

In any case, we’d like to respond to Mike’s strongly worded ideas. What follows is not our opinions on what OEMs can improve. Instead, we’ve listened to what our readers and viewers have asked us over the years and we’ll be mentioning all the things they ask us about on a daily basis. To top it off, we’ve posted a poll below so our readers and viewers can once again make their voices heard. After all, it’s YOUR opinion that really matters.

Dear OEMs, please use better batteries

The number one thing we hear about is battery life. People are always asking us about battery life. They want to know if the battery will last all day with moderate to heavy use. People often complain about battery life too. They tell us that they have to buy car chargers, chargers for work, and extended batteries because the stock battery is so bad. This is one of the few complaints we hear across every single OEM no matter what OS it runs. Putting in a switch to stock Android won’t fix this problem.

If we were to be so bold as to recommend a course of action based on the concerns of our readers, the first one would be to look into making the phone last longer on a single charge. There is a reason why people like the Droid RAZR MAXX and Droid RAZR MAXX HD over their non-MAXX brethren. Same specs but a bigger battery.

Dear OEMs, please give us more awesome cameras

People love their smartphone cameras to be awesome. When HTCdelivered the ultra-pixel with the HTCOne, no one was saying how cool that was. All they were asking was if it could outperform, you guessed it, the competition. Most people don’t even know what an ultra-pixel is, but I guarantee most who care have watched every comparison video and read every comparison article on the internet. That’s why those comparisons exist in such large numbers. It is because so many people care.

So what do people want? Better image quality, better low light performance, and more features. Does it matter to people if it’s ultra-pixel or megapixel? Do people really care if they’re taking photos through stock Android or HTCSense 5? The answer to that question is no. What OS you’re running doesn’t improve image quality. Better camera hardware from OEMs will.

Dear OEMs, please get rid of all lag now and forever

Okay sometimes requests may be unreasonable. It’s not possible to reduce lag to zero and keep it there forever. However, this is something we hear a lot about. They ask us if a phone lags in any noticeable areas. They want to know the benchmark scores, even if they aren’t really a testament to how a device acts in day-to-day activities. What they do not want is scrolling lag or gaming lag. They want to swipe home screens in buttery smooth bliss and not have a two second lag when they turn the screen on.

Processors are more powerful than ever and software is being more optimized by both Google and OEMs all the time. What I can tell you is that I’ve tested hundreds of apps on my Nexus 4 and believe me, vanilla Android still lags just like Touchwiz and Sense 5. Now before people start throwing rocks at me, this is not a rip on vanilla Android, Touchwiz, or HTCSense. It is an observation. None of them are 100% lag free and none of them ever will be. This is not a problem that can be fixed by removing OEM skins.

Dear OEMs, please make yourselves more available to us

A very common complaint among our readership is a device not showing up somewhere. Ask Verizon fans how they feel about the HTCOne taking its sweet time making it to Verizon. Ask Verizon fans how they feel about the Note 2 taking its sweet time making to Verizon. Really, just ask any Verizon customer. You can count the number of Sony devices available in the US market currently on one hand. Some OEMs have improved on this dramatically over the last couple of years, but some OEMs really haven’t.

As a special note, carrier availability isn’t the only problem. I can buy a Nexus 7 at a Staples, a Best Buy, or any number of other brick and mortar stores. While people turn to the web to buy just about everything, there is still a certain stigma about trying a phone before you buy it to make sure it feels right. When one of our readers asks what the best device is for them, our other readers will almost always reply that they should go to a store and try them out. We can’t do that with a Nexus 4. Besides, installing a stock Android switch won’t suddenly make a phone available where it isn’t already available. If anything, it’ll take even longer to get these devices to people.

For a moment, let’s talk about update availability. OEMs are already under fire constantly for not promptly updating their devices. Do you honestly think that’ll get any better when you introduce a second operating system? Instead of dealing with just their version of Android, they now have to update the stock Android and their OEM skin. Then they have to get carrier approval for both. People think updates take forever now, just wait until the phone needs to be updated twice!

So what do we think of this “All Nexus” dream society?

There is a reason why Android reigns supreme over every other mobile operating system. It’s not the apps, it’s not the Google integration, and most of the time it isn’t even phone specs. It’s the options. Plain and simple, people buy Android because when they buy Android, they have more than one style of Android to choose from. Adding a switch doesn’t change this. People buy Galaxy S4 devices because they like the Galaxy S4. If you want a pure Android Galaxy S4, those are available as well.

What matters is you, the reader. OEMs aren’t designing phones thinking, “Gee whiz, I hope this phone doesn’t invoke the angry words of Mike Elgan” or “I hope Joe Hindy has nice things to say about us.” They are designing phones thinking, “Is this what our customers want? What can we offer them that other OEMs cannot?” They’re not perfect, those OEMs, but believe it or not, they are competing for your attention. Not Mike Elgan’s attention. Not my attention. Your attention.

You know what? They aren’t doing half bad. The Galaxy S3 was the highest selling Android phone of 2012. The Galaxy S4 is rocking 2013 so far. The HTCEVO 4G, despite being available only on Sprint, controlled much of 2011. Do you know what these phones have in common? Not one of them were Nexus devices. So to say that Nexus is what’s best for consumers is axiomatically wrong.

When the estimated hundreds of millions of people go walking into their local mobile phone shop this year, they won’t be asking for something super nerdy like, “does this phone have an OEM-off switch?” They’ll be asking real world questions that normal people ask. Like if the phone will make it all day on a single charge. Whether or not the phone takes good pictures. Does it have enough storage? Does it have LTE? Is this awesome phone available on my carrier? What colors does it come in? Is it durable?

No matter how hard people try and no matter how much people hope, the problem with smartphones today will never be OEM skins. Touchwiz and HTCSense have never and will never be the problem. The reason is because hundreds of millions of people actually like Touchwiz, Sense, etc. They like Blinkfeed, Samsung’s Drama Shot, and Sony’s sophisticated interface. What they don’t like is crappy battery life, crappy pictures, crappy performance, crappy availability, and a plethora of other problems. So when you say that these people’s opinions are inconsequential and state (wrongly) that everyone really just wants to be able to switch to stock Android on every phone, do you honestly expect OEMs to listen?

The answer is no. At the end of the day, Android is an open source operating system. That means the OEMs, you, and I can do whatever we want with it. To even partially deny OEMs this right to be creative with this open platform by forcing them to include a switch back to stock is to spit directly into their face and into the face of everything that open source stands for. Besides, most people simply don’t care what kind of Android they’re running. What matters the most is whether or not the phone works.

If you have the time, please vote in our poll! We’d like to get as many voters as possible so if you are up for it, let others know so they can vote too!

[poll id=”332″]