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The case for skins: why stock may be anti-Android

by Joe Levi on

While users may not have always responded favorably, the ability of OEMs to deliver wildly divergent looks for their Android UIs could be seen as big success story for the sort of openness and flexibility that only Android offers.

In the very early days of Android, everything looked the same. Manufacturers kept the stock OS intact and focused on deploying hardware — that’s where the real creativity was exercised back then. That approach didn’t last long. Shortly after HTC built the G1 for T-Mobile, it created other phones with interfaces that began to refine the somewhat basic look and feel of Android Cupcake. herp2The app drawer icon was replaced with a swooping curve that incorporated various other shortcuts. At the time I thought this was simply the “next version” of Android — and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

It wasn’t the next version of Android. It was HTC trying to improve upon the user experience of stock Android. Over time these improvements spread further and further from “stock”, and other OEMs started to join in.

Samsung, ZTE, Huawei, LG, and more all started creating their own “skins”, branding the experience of their users with a distinct GUI that eventually only “resembled” Android. It’s gotten to the point now where someone, knowing that I’m “Joe the Android Guy”, will ask me how to do something on their smartphone, and I’ll stumble around hunting through screens and menus trying to find the setting that I know is there somewhere. If you think that’s frustrating for a Power User like you and I, imagine how it must feel to a typical user who has had a phone from one particular OEM and tries to switch to a device from another. The changes are frustrating, to say the least.

Since Google released Android Ice Cream Sandwich, that trend has been reversing, albeit slowly. Stock Android is taking on a much more polished and refined look, and the need for OEM skins is becoming less important. Consequently, a more unified look is appearing on devices powered by Android, regardless of who makes it. HTC’s latest version of Sense is drawing closer to stock. The interface on the Asus PadFone X looks very much like a compromise between Android 4.4.4 and Android L. Even ZTE is embracing the Google Now launcher.

android-one2Combine this with Android One, Google’s push into emerging markets, and the pattern is hard to deny: the stock Android experience may very well become the standard, regardless of who makes the device.

I’ve been an advocate of stock Android for a very, very long time. One part of me feels this direction may be a success in the sense that Android as a whole is figuring out how it wants to look and feel, and moving to a unified design. However, another part of me can see that this could be seen as a failure for those users who had looked to Android as the bastion of diversity in an otherwise rapidly homogenizing landscape.

Android was designed to be the open platform upon which OEMs could build their solutions. And OEMs did just that. They made devices look distinctly their own. They stretched the limits of what Android could do, then pushed past those limits with customizations and modifications. This, I feel, was the primary strength of Android, and what made it more promising than any other mobile platform on the market.

Success or Failure?

The question now is whether OEMs returning to stock marks the success of Android as an operating system and user experience, or the failure of Android as an open platform where OEMs could make devices be anything they wanted them to be.

What are your thoughts? Head down to the comments and let us know which side of the fence you’re on, or if you’re torn between the two, just like I am.

 

Pocketnow’s Stephen Schenck contributed to this article.

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