Jan 07 AT 8:00 AM Anthony Domanico 93 Comments

The first two Android phones released into the wild were the T-Mobile (HTC) G1 and the HTC MyTouch 3G. For many, these phones represented a new and open way of thinking about smartphones, combining powerful (at the time) hardware with open source software. The G1 and MyTouch 3G were widely acclaimed as pure Google devices, as they ran the stock version of the Android operating system.

When HTC launched the HTC Hero in October 2009, it marked the beginning of what would become a significant trend in the Android world. The HTC Hero was the third Android device launched in the United States and was the first to feature HTC Sense, HTC’s custom overlay that sits atop Android.

Since the HTC Hero was released in 2009, handset makers have felt the need to customize Android as a means of differentiating their products from those released by the competition. Today, a significant majority of Android devices released feature custom skins. With the exception of the LG G2x, the only high-end devices released without a custom skin are Google’s Nexus line of smartphones, whose releases are few and far between.

Handsets with custom UI overlays arose because, in the beginning, Android wasn’t exactly much to look at. Sure, it functioned well, but handset makers believed that they could offer an enhanced experience that the stock version of Android simply couldn’t match. In theory, I agreed with them, though in practice they almost always managed to fall short (case in point: MOTOBLUR).

With Android 4.0, it is very clear that Google has gotten it right, providing an operating system that is the perfect mixture of both form and function. Android no longer needs to have handset makers add their own custom features in order to provide an optimal user experience, yet we’re sure this trend isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Android 4.0: The Coming Together that Wasn’t

When Google announced the release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich back in October 2011, many believed it would mark the beginning of the end for custom UI skins. Supporters lauded the notion that Google had managed to finally release a version of the Android operating system that was both feature-rich and visually appealing.

Many folks in the mobile community, myself included, believe that Ice Cream Sandwich is the most complete and best looking operating system they have ever used in a smartphone, a notion phone reviewers tend to agree with. From a hardware perspective, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is on par with the specs found in almost all other high-end smartphone released of late, yet it continues to perform extremely well in reviews due in large part to Android 4.0.

There have been some promising moves of late, however, that suggest a remedy may be closer than we might think. In a post on the Android developer’s blog yesterday, Android framework engineer Adam Powell stated that an unmodified version of Google’s Holo theme will be required if a device is to be granted access to Google apps, including the Android Market. In essence, this will allow users to choose between the device’s default theme (such as HTC Sense or Samsung Touchwiz) and Google Holo when it comes to highlight colors, padding and margins, font color and size, background color, etc.

You won’t be able to change the launcher or homescreen, but we hope that forcing manufacturers to allow users to opt out of manufacturer themes paves the way for this option to be all-inclusive, and that consumers will soon be able to choose the stock vanilla Android platform in its entirety. Sadly, we don’t believe that will become a reality anytime soon.

Custom Skins are Here to Stay

CES 2012 is right around the corner, and we expect that devices running stock Android will be few and far between at the show. Frankly, we feel that custom skins are going to be with us at least through the next few versions of Android, if not indefinitely. There are (at least) three additive reasons why manufacturers won’t be so quick to ditch the custom skins they’re keen on putting atop Android devices.

First, handset makers genuinely believe that they are adding value to the Android platform, and that their customizations provide users with an enhanced experience not provided by stock Android. HTC believes that Sense UI provides a better user experience than both stock Android and the custom UIs other handset makers have come up with. Samsung and Motorola feel the same way about their Touchwiz and Don’tcallmeBLUR UIs (respectively). If they didn’t believe this, they would have stopped working on it by now.

Second, based on the belief that their custom UI skin is superior and offers a better experience, handset makers have dumped significant monetary and personnel resources into the development of their UI overlays, costs they believe provide them a competitive advantage in the mobile market.

Finally, their handsets are selling. A ton. Android now makes up close to 50% of US smartphone sales, and HTC, Samsung and Motorola continue to lead the way with Android device sales.

Add it all up and you can see why handset makers are so reluctant to change the way they do things. Why mess with a formula that has proven successful time and time again, especially when sales of Google’s Nexus line have yet to prove stellar? (Though we may see that trend change once Galaxy Nexus sales numbers come out in the next few months).

The current state of the mobile market suggests that custom skins are here to stay, at least until high-end stock Android devices start to match and surpass the sales of the skinned handsets that have a stranglehold on the Android smartphone market today.

Should we care?

Knowing that the market isn’t going to change anytime soon, should we really care that handset makers are still hard at work developing custom Android skins? Google’s lead user interface designer Matias Duarte doesn’t. In fact, he believes that handset makers genuinely come up with cool new ideas that end up making their way into later versions of Android.

With Android sales continuing to grow at an exponential pace, it’s clear the general public doesn’t either. So who does care? Generally, the Android modding community and tech journalists/bloggers are the only people who care that their device runs stock Android. Hell, most Android owners don’t even know which version of Android their device is running, let alone whether or not it’s running a custom skin. And as much as it pains us to say it, the modding community and tech bloggers are a very small drop in a very large bucket.

Still, as I argued in my article on Matias Duarte being okay with custom Android skins, I believe we should care which version of Android our devices are running, and users who don’t like a UI overlay should be allowed to revert to stock Android if they so wish. The solution is fairly simple to implement (at least in theory), and Google is already taking steps towards forcing handset makers to provide users the choice between manufacturer skinned themes and Google’s Holo UI.

If Google simply takes this notion one step further, we could soon see the day where phones will carry both the stock version of Android as well as manufacturer-skinned Android if they are to be granted access to Google applications most Android users have come to know and depend on. Manufacturers can leave their skins on by default and provide the option somewhere within the settings menu to revert back to stock for those who wish to do so. After all, our phones are now more than capable to handle the extra storage required.

Final Thoughts

I’ve long felt that the solution to the custom skin “problem” has been to provide users a choice as to which version of Android they’d like to use in their smartphones. It is only recently that devices have become capable enough to make this a viable option, and I for one hope the likes of HTC and Samsung choose to implement this strategy in the near future. As most individuals don’t likely know that their phone’s OS is skinned, handset makers will still have a significant number of people using their skin, and those who like the hardware but not the software will be more likely to purchase the device since they’ll be able to put stock Android back in.

As usual, we want to know what you guys think. Go ahead and generate a discussion in the comment section below. We’ll be sure to chime in as well.

Anthony loves all things technology, from hardware to apps and games. You can connect with him via Google+ or Twitter by clicking one of the fancy doo-dads above.

    Most Tweeted This Week