It's time for the baked-in Android UI to die

Android User Interface

Listen up, Android manufacturers: The time has come for your built-in Android user interface to go away. Call it Motoblur, call it Sense, call it whatever you want -- as long as it's coming preinstalled on Android phones, it's officially overstayed its welcome.

These days, practically every Android phone-maker is including its own custom UI -- or "skin," as it's often called -- on top of Google's basic Android software. The motivation is understandable: With modern Android devices having increasingly similar hardware power, the skins give companies a way to set their phones apart. And that's fine. It's the implementation that's a problem.

The manufacturers, you see, insist on integrating their UIs into the phone's operating system, replacing the stock Android OS with their own tweaked-out editions. It's pretty much the standard M.O. these days; it's what we see with Motorola's Motoblur, HTC's Sense, Samsung's TouchWiz, and Dell's and Sony's custom Android skins. And it's a practice that needs to end.

[This story is from the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. Follow @AndroidPower on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

The Trouble with the Integrated Android UI

The idea of the integrated Android interface presents a couple of serious issues. First, rolling out new versions of Android becomes a painfully involved and delayed process: Even with Google's updated software out in the wild, manufacturers have to make their own modifications and bake their custom skins back in before users can get the goods. We're seeing that happen right now with the Android 2.2 upgrade. (Yes, I know that HTC and Sprint were first out of the carrier gate with Froyo for the EVO -- and major props to them for making that happen -- but as most Android owners know, that's more the exception than the rule.)

Even worse is the situation playing out with brand new Android devices. Just this month, both the Dell Streak and Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 debuted running Android 1.6 under custom skins. I'll be blunt: There's absolutely no excuse for a brand new Android device to be shipping with a year-old version of the operating system. Froyo aside, Android 2.0 has been out since last October, and Android 2.1 has been around since January. Despite the two manufacturers' vague promises of upgrades -- Dell has said its Streak will receive the current version of Android sometime this year, while Sony has promised to bring the Xperia X10 up to version 2.1 before New Year's -- it's simply embarrassing and unacceptable for new hardware to be launching with such outdated software. 

Shifting the Android Skinning Strategy

Android Custom Skins

So what's the answer? I would make the argument that Android doesn't even need these manufacturer-made skins anymore: The stock interface has made leaps and bounds in the last few releases, and word is Google's next major update will add on yet another layer of UI-oriented polish. I know I'm not the only original Droid owner who was disappointed to see the new Droid 2 arrive with Motorola's Motoblur instead of the vanilla Android its predecessor possessed; having the stock OS presents plenty of desirable advantages, and most of the skin-provided features are things you can easily implement on your own with third-party utilities.

That said, I can accept the fact that phone-makers want to put their own distinguishing touches on devices -- and realistically, I know that isn't going to change anytime soon. Both Motorola and HTC have already hinted about plans to continue developing their skins into the future, despite Google's advances with the Android OS.

My proposal, then, is for the manufacturers to meet us halfway and stop baking their modifications into the system. If you want to include custom widgets, make them standalone apps. If you think your added home screens and special navigation systems are super-duper, turn them into separate launcher/home screen replacement programs. Preinstall this stuff on the phones if you must, but stop integrating it into the damn OS.

Aside from simplifying the Android upgrade process -- new versions of the stock OS could be rolled out far more efficiently, with the widgets and launchers requiring only basic compatibility updates like any other normal Android apps -- this switch would embrace the choice-oriented nature of Android so many users value. If customers want your software modifications, they'll have them. But if they prefer starting with the base OS and building their own experiences, they can uninstall your additions and get back to square one without any complex procedures.

Manufacturers, you've worked hard to create custom skins for your Android devices. Now it's time to work harder to turn those skins into assets rather than liabilities for your users. It'll make the Android ecosystem -- and yes, your products -- far stronger in the end.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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