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.

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  • http://photoep.com/ Elliot Powell

    I have only owned Devices that have run stock (Mytouch 3G and G2X) Using anything else has honestly frustrated me. Essentially every time I contemplate a new phone, I plan on Putting Cyanogen mod on it any how which gives one a close to stock experience with under the hood enhancements.

    What would be really neat is if manufacturers released their phones with their overlays but also released an “enhanced stock” version that perhaps ran CM or some other Stock ROM.

    • fearphage

      I have the reverse experience. I believe custom UIs do offer a better user experience. My track record looks like:

      Motorola Milestone
      HTC Evo
      HTC 3D & LG G2X
      Epic Touch 4G

      I have rooted every phone I’ve had and in most cases installed Cyanogenmod. Currently I’m running rooted Touchwiz on my phone SGS2. There are several things that both Sense and Touchwiz do correctly:

      - Notification area call controls when you switch out of the phone app while on a call (Touchwiz offers end call, speaker, and mute while Sense only offers end call last i checked)
      - contact prediction (searching for contacts by name and phone number in the contacts app) as you dial a phone number
      - iOS-style jump to contact letter (A-Z down right column in touchwiz)
      - In contacts in Touchwiz, you can swipe left to call or swipe right to text. Very convenient
      - Sense offered unlock to an app before it was included in stock
      - Sense offered the best contact deduplication and combining across social networks initially
      - Touchwiz has a low battery/power save mode that you can trigger when the battery gets low to disable unused services and apps
      - Sense offered the ability to toggle vibrate from the volume dialog at any volume level
      - Touchwiz incorporated the pull-down wifi, bluetooth, etc. toggles from CM7
      - Touchwiz incorporated the slide across notifications area brightness control from CM7
      - Sense allows you to silence the ringer by turning the phone over before it was in core

      These are just a few little things but they make using the phone much better for me. I haven’t installed Cyanogenmod becauase while it has amazing features, it doesn’t have the best user experience.

      I don’t mean this to be an insult or reflect negateively on Cyanogenmod in any way, shape, or form. I’m just noting functionality that are missing from Android stock (which CM is based on). I love the CM team and the ROM.

      Disclaimer: I haven’t used CM7 reliably since the release of the Evo 3D. It may have all this functionality now for all I know. With my 3D, I did feel like going from Sense 4.0 to Cyanogenmod was a huge trade-off so I never made the jump.

      • Jon Garrett

        +1

        I like the things that touch wiz offers on my Galaxy S II.

      • Jeff Pan

        Thats a nice list fearpage. Personally I have liked the Sense UI. I would like to see a vanilla Andreoid 4.0 Phone from HTC though. They have many phone and adding a vanilla Android phone to their list wouldnt harm them.

      • sockeqwe

        i think the most of you missunderstood something:
        The things fearphage has listed may be correct, but that has nothing to do with a launcher (touchwiz, sence etc.) and the theming problem.
        In fact the things like the phone call app is a app that has replaced the default phone app. It could be any ohter phone call app from the market.
        So don’t get confussed. Replacements like Touchwiz is a launcher and a corresponding theme (for example the color of a button on this device, the notificationbar background color, etc.) . A launcher is responsible for drawing the homescreens and the app menu, called app drawer. If the contact app has the iOS style to jump to character or to swipe for calling, it has nothing to do with touchwiz itself. It’s the “phone app” developed by Samsung that has been set as the default “phone app” on its phones, that gives you this functionallity. NO TOUCHWIZ magic here :-)
        But the main problem and is the theming. Touchwiz brings a own theme (colors, margins, etc.) for every android ui element, like buttons, textfields, checkboxes etc. The Point is: every app, downloaded from the market, could look diffrently under samsung Touchwiz device or htc sence. And thats the reason, why google requires Holo UI. Holo UI is not the standard Android ICS Launcher, Holo UI is the standard ICS theme. And that gives app developers the garantee that his app looks exactly the same way on every device, even if there is touchwiz installed. In addition it will bring a consistent app look and feel on android devices. For example: The app X will not have a yellow colored loading animation, and the app Y will not have a green colored loading animation, but both will have the blue HOLO UI color for the loading animation… I think thats an important part that is missing in this article!

  • George

    The HTC Hero was my first Android phone, and Sense at the time was a massive improvement to Android 1.5. Better widgets, contact integration accross social networks, phone and texting apps,the list goes on.

    Personally I dont mind custom skins, there is always the Nexus choice. Although ideally phone manufacturers could differantiate by offering exclusive widgets and other customization options as opposed to mandatory launchers and apps.

    • kazahani

      ^ What he said.

      I don’t mind them trying to improve Andorid. That’s why it’s open source, after all. But when they implement changes on the scale of Touchwiz or Blur, it causes compatability problems with some apps. Touchwiz is so buggy on my Vibrant…

      • Carlito2cool

        I completely agree, I too once had a Vibrant; which is the reason why I left it and went with a Nexus s 4g. I can not stand Touchwiz or any of the other UI’s. Just my personal preference, but in my opinion stock android is the best choice, especially, now that android 4.0 released. I am looking forward to JellyBean this year ;)

        • Olliedcy

          I too have a Vibrant. While I agree with your comments but to me the real irritation is the makers overloading the specs on a perfectly good handset to the point that upgrades with the makers overlay are not possible. Case in point is Vinrant and ICS.

    • Glendawg

      The hero was using not just 1.5 because android 1.5 did not yet support CDMA networks. It actaully ran a hybrid 1.5/1.6 build.

    • mustybooks

      I too had a hero as my first android phone. I don’t know whether it was just the uk gsm version but I could choose between sense and stock from the off.

      At the time, after trying both thoroughly, I completely agree with the comment above… Sense was way better than stock. But now android have created a masterpiece.

      What people want is a choice and that is usually the beauty of android. We need a variety of ui’s and manufacturers and hardware so people can choose what they prefer. Also diversity is great for advancement. See how many ideas were taken from devs by google for 4.0 and even web os. With androids fingers in all those pies ideas aren’t going to be in short supply.

      This is where other companies are going wrong (apple, rim, microsoft

      • mustybooks

        Sorry for double post. I know you hardworking guys have made an awesome site but an edit button would be great :)

    • mustybooks

      I too had a hero as my first android phone. I don’t know whether it was just the uk gsm version but I could choose between sense and stock from the off.

      At the time, after trying both thoroughly, I completely agree with the comment above… Sense was way better than stock. But now android have created a masterpiece.

      What people want is a choice and that is usually the beauty of android. We need a variety of ui’s and manufacturers and hardware so people can choose what they prefer. Also diversity is great for advancement. See how many ideas were taken from devs by google for 4.0 and even web os. With androids fingers in all those pies ideas aren’t going to be in short supply.

      This is where other companies are going wrong (apple, rim, microsoft) they are encouraging devs but only up to a point. They have to realise that there are a ton of great minds that aren’t working for them but are churning out great ideas. And any company even the size of apple can match dedicated people power.

      Choice and sharing people, that’s the way forward.

  • Ben

    The author of this article doesn’t really know what he is talking about. He is an end-user trying to dictate should-be policy. The ‘skin-problem’ is one of the primary reasons why Android is as successful as it is today, by offering the ability for manufacturer (and carrier) differentiation.

    I’m glad he’s not heading up Android.

    • dirty_azkals

      It’s the lower price point of the device and the many different form is why it’s a hit. Among other things, additional skins is why people can’t get OS updates faster compared to other OS brands updates.

      How is that the Nexus S can get ICS but the non nexus version of the Galaxy can’t since they basically have the same hardware? Samsungs excuse is we can’t fit both ICS AND Touchwiz in the phone. Gee, an OS update or UI skin I wonder which is more important? You don’t know what CONSUMERS want.

    • stenzor

      That’s not very nice.. After all, his opinion resonates with many end-users, and guess who the manufacturers are working for? The end-user. Without the end-user they would not exist because no one would buy their products.

      • Matt

        I’m with Ben. I use TouchWiz on my SGS2, and I love it. I see absolutely no reason to have stock android on my phone. I bought it because I liked what I saw. I also don’t mind waiting for OS upgrades either.

    • Doan

      The author is suggesting that we get a CHOICE between vanilla and manufacturer-skinned Android. He is not suggesting to eliminate skins. Odd that you would disagree with something that satisfies everyone.

  • S

    Well ofc UI skins are here to stay, how else would someone define the device itself without looking at the logo and such.

    • Dan Doan-Draper

      If Device A runs the latest version of Android smoother and more lag-free than Device B through Z, then that’s all I need to define it. I don’t care if my device looks exactly the same as every device across the country, as long as it has the best performance.

  • spazby

    I hate the skins and will as always try to get the nexus. Pure google is the way to go. I still believe, or at least hope, that manufacturers will offer a switch on the phone where we can chose to turn the skin on or off. wishful thinking…

    • Steve Barry

      Oh yeah, if mfg’s would have it the way it is by default (with their skin) but give an option of naked Android, that would be tops. The 99% would leave things the way they are, while those of us enthusiasts would certainly go to vanilla Android.

      The other nice thing is it would obviously speed up software upgrades too. Perhaps one upgrade for the vanilla android users, and then 6-9 months down the road (wink wink) they would release the upgrade which is ‘compatible’ with whatever skin is being used.

      But as you said, wishful thinking :(

      • thel0nerang3r

        I don’t think that giving the option of either custom skin of manufacturer skin would speed up the release of development. Because the manufacturer still has to make sure the update works with the update. Also, as the LG G2x was released with stock Android and it has had slow released updates and buggy ones at that. I 100% agree with you that user’s should be given the choice of custom skin or manufacturer’s skin.
        On a side note, the article says that ” 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.”
        I thought that the files for holo theme would be required so developers can choose them so their apps look consistent across devices. I don’t think it will give the user the option to choose skin.

        • thel0nerang3r

          ” Because the manufacturer still has to make sure the update works with the update”
          errr… I mean that “the andoid update works with their skin.”
          Wow, don’t know how I missed that during my editing.

      • Doan

        The 99% don’t even know about vanilla Android. If there were an option between manufacturer-skinned and vanilla Android on every new device, hype for vanilla Android could spread like wildfire for all we know.

    • Carito2cool

      Wishful thinking indeed, however, its not impossible. So lets hope that day will come soon.

  • Mark

    My first phone was a G1 when it came out in ’08 and my current phone is a G2 so obviously my leaning goes to stock. Matter of fact, I can’t STAND any phone with any sort of skin on it. I’m hoping there’s a G3 next year or I’ll end up with whatever Nexus is out when my contract ends.

  • Oskar Wismierski

    I do think touchwizz is quite helpful and has some interesting features BUT it still looks and feels crap!

    • cthonctic

      But functionality != look&feel. Change the launcher to LauncherPro, ADW EX or GO and it looks much less fake-iPhoney while all the added TW features (which are really quite nice) remain.

      You don’t even need to root or anything, just install an alternative launcher from the market and maybe choose a theme for it, voilà! Could hardly be any easier.

      • Fuzzypaws

        As someone looking into getting my first Android phone, your comment here is actually super helpful. I was not happy with the thought of being stuck with the UI from one of the manufacturer skins. But if I can keep the added features, and change the launcher and theme without going full on Cyanogen, that is a great thing to know and the first I’ve heard that.

    • Ryland

      Touchwiz is boring. Four icons with almost no customization. It reminds me of… ios…. which is the opposite of what I want. I use go launcher and I get comments on how cool my home screen looks all the time. And not only does it look cleaner and nicer than touchwiz, its 5 times more functional for my needs. The same goes for motoblur and whatever other themes are out there. I actually don’t mind htc sense, but still stock android gingerbread and further up is the best you can get.

  • petchulio

    I don’t personally feel that the manufacturer’s custom UIs hurt Android. They just give it some flavor. Sure, your hardcore Android enthusiasts are always going to piss and moan over how everything should be vanilla all the time but sometimes it can add value and flair, especially to the Android layperson who doesn’t care about purity.

    That being said, I wish there was a way to turn the skin on or off but I don’t see that ever happening.

  • silentmelodies

    Honestly speaking I really don’t have any problem with the so called ‘skins’. One thing most people and the author need to understand is that these ‘skins’ in most cases are far from what was known before as themes. The customizations the OEMs do are in most cases deeply integrated into the core level, and is not only just a matter of appearance. In most cases, yes, they do give enhancements, sometimes not.
    Samsung for example does give a significant enhancements boost, their TW 4 browser is one example. LG’s and motoblur are example that needlessly cripple performance. Are they bad? For the average consumer, as the author said, no. They really don’t and won’t need to care. For the ‘modding’ community? Seriously, NO. Anyone serious enough into modding will most likely simply use a custom ROM. Because what they want is not just the ‘stock’ feel experience. It is the performance boost. The other rest that keep complaining about what they call ‘skins’ are just ignorant really.

    • cthonctic

      I was about to write pretty much the same. If people are really as serious about AOSP Android as they say, they will get a ROM on their phone that does EXACTLY what they want.
      If they don’t do that, they can hardly have been that serious about it in the first place.

      Imagine if every Android phone came with vanilla ICS, then we’d have the same boring cavalcade of similar looking devices as WP7 has. I for one really don’t want that.

      As cool as ICS is, and personally I like it a lot, one size doesn’t fit all – ever. Even vanilla ICS doesn’t. Please remember, choice is good. That’s for both hardware and software.

      • http://kestrelsaerie.com Steve Hall

        Unfortunately, there’s no way to get ICS on a Droid X right now–rooted or not. Yes, CM9 is coming, but who knows when? (And that’s not at all a knock on the CM team: any knowledgeable modder knows they’re working out of love, not for money.)

  • AsakuraZero

    some skins are okieish, and others can just go to hell, (yes im looking at you motoblur).

    the good thing about android is the posibility to change the launcher, the skins with it, and change the experience of the phone in overall (like with launcher pro)

    touchwiz its ugly but simple, making it appealing, havent touch a sense phone, i love the Sony overlay UI, it may be the only one which i like, but i ditch out the timescape.

    and motoblur please just die, you are annoying >_>

    • protozeloz

      The new *not blur blur* is not that bad and packs quite a few features

  • Ironzey Lewis

    Just a point of clarification, CYANOGENMOD IS NOT STOCK.

    CM has enhancments just like Sense, Touchwiz and (not) Motoblur.

    I’m definatly in the minority here but I don’t think these enhancments are such a bad thing.

    Panorama, one of the big “new” features of ICS has been part of Touchwiz for a LOOONG time.

    Lockscreen actions, I’ve bene using that with Sense for almost a year now.

    Tight(er) integration with social networking

    There is a long list of stuff that gets folded into Android that has come from the UIs that everyone seems to hate so much.

    I’m excited to see somehting like Motorola’s Smart actions ( basically, a much prettier Tasker) come to stock Andriod. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

  • http://varemenos.com/ Varemenos

    always buy phones with unlocked bootloaders so you dont need to care about custom UIs or not.
    If you want a customUI u just flash the stock rom or else a customized rom is there to provide an alternative feel either stock or miui or whatnot

    • thel0nerang3r

      As far as I know, only the Nexus line meets your description (unlocked boot loader). Others can be unlocked, with various degrees of difficulty.

  • Jay

    I love the idea of being able to revert to stock software but there is no way any of these manufacturers would do something like that. That would mean they would have to push two upgrades when a new version of android comes out and they already are having problems doing one

  • BiGMERF

    great article Anthony.. irrelevant to me though .. since i will not be buying anything unless it is 100 percent vanilla.

  • revs

    started with g1 then 3g my first skin was 3g slide mytouch senseish skin and i loved ittttt what an upgrade then i found launcher pro which i still use now due to the fact my sensation cant handle sense at all p.o.s
    but ive had them all ive enjoyed the mytouch sense on the 3g slide and 4g but motoblur on my droid 2 was awfulll and sense on the sensation is soooooo buggy it cant run at all on my girls 3d its beautiful
    touchwiz on epic 4g was buggy n crap
    so imo the only ppl who know anything ab custom ui are htc mytouc sense uis guess the headstart helped since they started the android movment with the exception of the terrible sensation only htcc phone i regret

    • me

      Great punctuation.

  • http://keridel.blogspot.com keridel

    Having spoken to HTC regarding sense i know that it wont be going anywhere for the time being. they released HTCdev for this exact reason to give the modding community something to work with.

    i agree with anthony in that most people dont care about stock. if you ask someone with a htc phone what android looks like they will draw you a sense screen. the average joe on the street has no idea unless he owns a stock phone.

  • vid500

    I must say that when I bought my HTC desire HD it was also becouse of the Sence. In those days android was great, but the sence really had some great additions to in with all the social network integraton,… and the lock screen now that thay updated it to Gingerbread and the sence 3.0.
    But I think the user shuld have the chance to pick wich one dose he wont to use, becouse if you buy a phone for hardware reasons, you shuld be allowed to use the basic android skin. And now with ICS and it’s grat look more people would like to have the pure android experiance.

  • alex

    Cool article, although would like to make one point- its not users that choose between Holo and skin in 4.0, but the developers. I personally build my apps so that they use Holo because I know exactly what they’ll look like on all 4.0 devices.

    I have to say though, its a very sneaky and (clever!) move by Google!

  • Carlito2cool

    Well done article. I have to say personally, android stock is 10xs better than that crap of UI’s those manufacturers created. For the most part, they based the look of their UI’s to IOS (Touchwiz and dont call me motoblur.) Don’t even get me started with that heavily garbage sense skin. I understand that android is all about open source and choice, which is the reason why it provides the best smartphones than any other that have different OS’s, but it’s about time Google took charge of whats their’s and added to option to revert to stock android. I understand the casual buyers don’t care about UI they are running, at least give the geeks and true android owners who truly understand the potential of android the option to choose the best UI. After all, we bought the phone, I believe we should have the option to do with it what we will. Android 4.0 is far superior than all of those other UI’s so there is no longer a reason why we should still have differentiated UI’s they only causes compromises to the system it self; it makes phones buggy and not to mention it infamously delays the updates that no android fan should be deprived off. For all of my true fellow android fans, lets hope 2012 will finally be the year where we see smartphones that do not offer out of the box stock android will provide the option to revert to it.

  • the5thdimension

    Not a fan of custom UI’s what so ever. It’s been vanilla Android for me since day one. I can understand why the manufacturer’s put the custom skins on their phones, but I don’t agree with it 100%. While these custom skins are supposed to create a better user experience, they sometimes do the exact opposite. I pretty much hate all of the UI’s. The only thing I like about HTC Sense is the weather animations. Oh and TouchWiz isn’t too terrible, but that’s about it.

    I’m still waiting to get my hands on my very own Galaxy Nexus, but from what I’ve seen Android 4.0 is beautiful. I’m such a huge fan of Android and I’m so happy to have been able to witness it’s transformation and see how far it has come from the days of the G1. I feel like where Android is right now is a great place and there is no room for these manufacturers’ custom bullshit UI’s.

  • Prime

    More ram should fix some of those problems if they want to keep adding their UI’s. In my opinion i really like sense UI!

    • thel0nerang3r

      More ram means more power usage. They could put 4GB of RAM on phones, but it would drain the battery faster.
      I went from a HTC phone to a Nexus S. One big thing that I miss is the dialer. In Sense, I could start typing “6 6 8″ and it matches “Mot” for “mother.”. It’s a tiny detail, but very useful. Now, I have to scroll through my contacts or do a search for a name, again, tiny details make a big difference.

  • pjax

    Skins are bad. “value added” and exclusive apps/widgets are good.

    the problem with skins is that it creates an incoherent user experience for the app world. App should match the theme of the OS. It looks better to have apps that all follow one unified theme. Skinning breaks this unity. Sense UI does not go well with the flat edgy look of Holo UI.

    Give value added apps, not skins. HTC’s Lock screen is nice and functional. So is the home screen and their widgets (just make it match Holo and you’re good). Provide some more functional SMS/Contacts/Calendar/Office apps and you have a killer selling point. Don’t mess with the skin.

    Apps can provide the value added without intrusive skinning.

    PS: MotoBlur is still sucking (not calling it blur didn’t help). Someone at Motorola needs to rethink what looks good.

  • sylar

    Well at least we know we will have a little bit of a choice when it comes to 4.0.

  • Dr.Carpy

    I often wonder who drives the custom UIs? Manufacturers could save the cost of creating and updating these UIs that aren’t really wanted. They could lower costs or add other refinements that customers would appreciate. Some could sell more units by using Google to provide the updates to their phones. I guess it makes too much sense.

    • http://kestrelsaerie.com Steve Hall

      As the article alluded to, it’s market forces that drive custom UIs: The need for Samsung to differentiate its offerings from Motorola, who wants to differentiate _its_ offerings from HTC, who in turn, of course, wants to differentiate from Samsung. It’s a vicious circle, and we consumer-customers are caught in the middle.

      And of course, giving users the option to choose between stock and custom is anathema.

  • David Sumner

    While i love my HTC Sensation, what i would love more is to have the option to shut off the Sense UI. Don’t get me wrong i like sense, i find it to be the best custom UI to have over android. But sometimes you just want to have enjoy stock android. Especially Google’s android 4.0 . Android 4.0 with sense looks stupid to me compared to stock.

  • aranea

    “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 ”

    Problem with that is that for and upgrade to come to the phones we will still need to wait for a long time and this may require more space giving manufacturers another reason for not upgrading earlier phones.

    My vote is on like many others that company specific UIs should be launcher apps with an option to disable it. That will result in fewer bugs, faster upgrades, less money spent from manufacturers and happy customers.

    Another option is that manufacturers maybe forced to released a stock Android for their devices that can be installed without rooting and not over the air but through their website.

    • aykutb

      i use sense because of it’s contacts app mostly, the most comprehensive so far.

  • redraider133

    I think the manufacturers should either make their skin optional at boot up, or make it be a download in the market for those who want their skin on their phone. I do not think they should force it on consumers especially since not all carriers up until last month had a nexus.

  • nrorm

    I’ve run cyanogenmod on both my hero and evo3d and I prefer it to sense. however, the author makes the point that the devices with skins are selling the best. I bought the evo3d because of its processor, not sense and I believe there are a good amount of enthusiasts who have done the same—we may be in the minority, but we exist.

  • cb2000a

    I am quite happy with my Touch-whiz interface on my Samsung phone.

    • pjax

      have you tried MIUI or Cyanogen on your phone?

  • Taylor

    I think the opportunity to address this issue revolves around Android OS updates. I every case (yes, every) custom UIs delay OS updates as manufacturers have to retool software on already sold phones while still trying to develop devices for new sales. Both manufacturers and Google have much ground to be made up here.

    For their part, manufacturers have little to no incentive in keeping older devices up-to-date. In the case of Apple, updates keep already loyal fans happy. But few Android handset makers have anything close to that scale of brand loyalty to appease. These device makers spend money and resources to go after each others’ customers, but little to keep the ones they already have. So, what is the risk-reward equation for Android manufacturers to invest in old hardware vs. appeal to users with new software? (The state of the market answers that, I think.)

    Google needs to address it’s roll out of updates, as well, as a means to addressing the fragmentation; Android 2.2, 2.3.x, 3.x, 4.0, etc as well as Sense, TouchWiz and all the other schlock. In tying Google App access to interface, they have made the first move. Second, like Anthony, I propose that Google require parallel UIs to be loaded with all future upgrades; that is stock Android AND whatever UI the manufacturers desires.

    An intersting middle ground would be the widgets that really make the individual UIs shine. For my part I love the Sense widgets (and was unimpressed by the TouchWiz ones). Many of the software default widgets are also crap (I’m talking to you Facebook and Twitter). What if these were hardware locked to the devices they were originally installed on, to avoid redistribution of intellectual property by the modding community? What if they were sold in the Market or as a side-loaded APK as additional revenue stream? What if these hardware companies stopped worrying so much about the software and spun off these divisions to let them blossom for the entire community?

  • Yazan

    I only use stock android devices because I prefer the way Google makes it. First the OG Droid, then a Xoom and Galaxy Nexus.

  • YNWA

    I don’t understand why Motorola doesn’t just go with stock for 4.0 and beyond now that Google owns them. It would save a bunch of time in development and bug fixing that Google doesn’t care to do twice.

    For me, I am out of the MOTOBARF and Touch (I just took a) Wiz worlds, and I am Nexus for life. Once they see the sales numbers for it, they will realize what is going on.

  • Richard G Guadagno

    I will only buy a stock Android phone. My first was the OG Droid and now the Galaxy Nexus.

  • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com DroidSamurai

    I’ve told my friends about this many times — the biggest reason why we don’t see stock Android on Android phones is because Google doesn’t care. If we read Android related blogs, we often see comments suggesting Google care about that, but this is far from the truth as Google execs had come out and said repeatedly that they believed allowing OEM to customize their phone is the way to go. So, don’t expect that to change. We should consider ourselves lucky if Google finally makes the decision to force the OEM to include a way to disable custom skin.

  • medwa

    While there was a time when Sense was an improvement over stock, that time has come and gone. Even if we are given a choice between skinned and stock UI’s in the future, I will still either go the Nexus route or root and completely remove the skinned UI.

    With 4.0 being so polished, there’s no sense in wasting valuable storage on something not being used.

    • aykutb

      “valuable storage” is no more, you have tons of storage in your device right now if you’re keeping up, and i doubt you have used Sense 3.5.

  • lokidokie

    I truly don’t understand why each manufacturer doesn’t just make one AOSP ‘nexus’ device each.
    They can then have their others also, but I really think the pure Google device would make $$$

  • Chuxter

    I concur!

  • Himal Limbu

    if only..those custom skins can be turned off…there wont be these mess.

  • dwilson6

    HTC already has scenes which it could extend to include all of its customizations. A stock Android scene could be included.

  • http://www.jimtravis.com jimtravis

    Overall, the custom skins are an enhancement. more pluses than minuses for my needs. Like to see a master control panel to allow the user to turn on / off each enhancememt discretely in addition to a master custom skin off switch.

  • flamesbladeflcl

    I have never owned a touchwiz device, but I do have a droid3, a thunderbolt, and a evo view, so I have used blur and sense and personally I love stock (or rather stockish cm7). I installed cm7 within hours of getting my thunderbolt, I tried sense a few times and didn’t like it. the view is sorta stuck with sense for the moment (no aosp roms saddly) I deal with it with a custom launcher but it is sorta ugly, I really dislike the look of the sense notifaction bar (when closed or open)

  • aykutb

    I’ve used iOS 4, iOS 5, stock android(pre 4.0) sense 2, 2.1, 3, 3.5 and last but most important Ice Cream Sandwich. iOS has it’s own language and most of the time feels unnecessarily complicated in a stupid way for android users. Stock android is fast, stable, user friendly. ICS felt a bit like iOS, didn’t give the same user friendly feeling as previous versions to be honest. HTC sense has always been a “smart” ui, it didn’t step up in terms of being user friendly till 3.0 and honestly, i haven’t used anything better than sense 3.5 yet, i know there’ll be a lot of haters but really, sense 3.5 is as smart as any UI can get for now.

  • staryoshi

    I too have been preaching allowing users to switch to the vanilla OS if they feel so inclined. I don’t mind touchwiz on gingerbread, but when I move to ICS I would much rather have the choice to use it in its pure form.

  • Nathan D.

    My first android phone was the mytouch 3g and still this day I still have it =( I need a new phone.

  • morjoie

    I really liked this article and generally agree with it. I do disagree with the generalization that only tech journalists and modders care about Android UI skins. I am neither tech jounalist or modder but I care enough about skins to know that I have lost patience with them.

    I bought my Droid Incredible in April 2010. At the time, I thought the HTC Sense skin did bring value to the Android user experience. The Sense home screens and launchers totally outshone what passed for the Eclair UI (the OS for the Droid Incredible when it was first offered in 2010) and Froyo. I think with Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich, however, these skins have turned into more of a hindrance than a value-add.

    Unfortunately, the manufacturers have ruined whatever “value” their skins provide because of the horrible experience in making OS updates available. I think the Gingerbread update was released in the second quarter of 2010. It took more than a year for the update to get delivered to Droid Incredible owners.

    I have come to intensely dislike the absence of clarity regarding whether a device is going to get an OS upgrade, and the complexity of skins that seems to hinder the delivery of updates in anything close to a timely manner. Even with the most recent or top-of-the-line devices, it takes months to deliver an update. I’m not especially interested in having the iPhone, but it’s hard to miss how Apple can announce an update and have it available to millions of users within a day or two of the announcement.

    Even when an Android update is delivered, that could just be the beginning of more problems. When the Gingerbread update was finally delivered to Droid Incredible owners, it created major conflicts and had to be pulled – not once, but twice, before we got an upgrade that actually worked. That’s just ridiculous. Whatever the reasons or excuses for such miserable service, I’ve had it. Whatever “value” skins bring to Android, count me out!

    My contract is up in a few months. I will wait to see what comes out of the Consumer Electronics Show, of course, but at this point, my next phone is likely to be the Galaxy Nexus. It’s not an ideal phone, by any stretch. It’s too big, it has no expandable memory, doesn’t seem to be terribly durable and the camera isn’t even great, just OK. But it’s got vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich and, for me, that means OS updates and their improvements, delivered within a reasonable time after announcement, and no more worry about glitches because the upgrade won’t work with my skinned version of the OS. It’s a trade-off, but worth it.

    I was disappointed when I heard that Matias Duarte wasn’t bothered by the skins imposed on the Android OS. The complexity and delays that they introduce contribute to messing up the end user experience. At the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in October, Matias Duarte lamented that people don’t “love” Android. Well, the end user experience with skins is Exhibit A as to why “love” is fleeting.

    I agree with the author that the “state of skins” is not likely to change anytime soon. I wish skins were optional, designed more like apps. Unfortunately, HTC, Motorola, LG, Samsung, etc. are more interested in “differentiating” their phones than helping end users to enjoy their phones. So when it comes time for me to buy a new phone, I am not likely to be a repeat customer of HTC. That is not good for them, considering their 4th quarter sales didn’t exactly meet expectations. Too bad, because creating a seamless end user experience is in the interest of phone manufacturers and carriers and would contribute far more to brand loyalty and their financial bottom lines than so-called product “differentiation.”

    • DroidPower

      I think the problem is that they (manufacturers) haven’t figured out how to differentiate themselves other than putting on custom skins. HTC is trying to do it with the Beats audio thing in Rezound. While you claim to be neither a tech journalist nor a modder, I think you’re still a techie, and the point of the article is that in general, techies will care about skin UIs. The challenge for the manufacturers is that they can’t just sell to techies because the general population is not as tech savvy as we or the manufacturers would like. This one of the biggest reason why Apple is winning right now. In order to win the general population, you have to differentiate yourself in experience. Hardware specs are not going to win here because people don’t really notice the speed bumps that well unless using a test or there aren’t enough applications made that can showcase how fast certain devices are. As long as that’s happening, the only way to differentiate is to do a custom UI or a hardware spec that general people care about like beats audio (which still only caters to a small audience). I think there’s another article on the site about how different phones will have dedicated, exclusive game apps that showcase the prowess of that phone… maybe when that happens more manufacturers will drop the custom UIs.

    • PGrGr

      My history is HTC Desire, which I rooted and installed CM7 after about a year, then Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

      Whilst I agree with the reasoning of those who clamour for Vanilla Android only, my experience of the Sammy GNex hasn’t been wonderful. Being an early adopter means you often end up with buggy software and Android 4 is typical of this.

      I have found that the screen wakes itself up by touching and consequently drains the battery whilst in the phone is not being used and is in my pocket. Sometimes, the screen just wakes up by itself, without even being touched. Whether related or not, I can’t say, but sometimes, the battery seems to suddenly drain on occasion. When the battery gets below about 15% it comes up with the low battery charge warning so frequently the phone becomes completely unusable. Finally, yesterday, the phone refused to boot up properly, going into an infinite “boot loop” which I was only able to fix by performing a factory resent of the handset.

      I should stress that I have not rooted the handset or done anything funny to it. After some websearching, I found that loads of other people have had the same problems, and that it’s unclear whether this is a software or hardware problem, and Google themselves have been less than helpful.

  • Andrea Mazzario

    I 100% agree with Morjoie. I have a Galaxy S, while my wife has the Nexus S. Yes, there are a minor tweaks in the Galaxy S UI that I like, but the major point is that her phone was upgraded to ICS over a week ago, while mine only got upgraded to Froyo (!!!!) a few months ago. The lack of upgrades is definitely not worth any benefit that the custom UI may offer. My next phone will definitely be whatever the latest Nexus phone will be at that time!

  • sandwich11

    I think “UI Skins” are one of Android’s strengths. The option to chose a different “flavor” of Android is something that the iPhone can’t compete with. And there is always the Nexus option if you just prefer stock.

  • weezeremo

    I agree with alot of the earlier comments. I went from EVO to Epic 4g touch and cant complain the touch wiz is a little harder at first but once i got it i think it has some great features that HTC doesnt have and vice versa, but the speed on the Epic 4g … i down right amazing! compared to and evo… it feels like a cts-v compared to a standard cadi cts v6

    • yankeesusa

      you can’t really compare the phones ui and base the speed of the phone on that. The phones have different processors and of course one is older than the other. If you were to root each phone and put a vanilla android on it then you could run the test again.

  • yankeesusa

    All I know is that I love htc sense and thats the reason why for the past several years I have only owned htc. I would rather have htc sense on my phone than a plain gingerbread os. But with the new 4.0 and seeing all its tweaks I may be able to part ways with sense ui. But as of now I really enjoy and use htc sense all the time. I have used samsung wiz and motoblur and I definitely do not like motoblur but can adjust to wiz. In the end if I had to choose without trying android 4.0 it would be to keep sense. But I’m looking forward to trying the nexus.

  • Hollyw0od

    Its really all personal preference. I love Sense. In my opinion, up until Android 4.0 vanilla paled in comparison to the custom skins.

    Except TouchWiz. Screw TouchWiz.

  • coldfuzion

    I can’t see any logical reason NOT to allow users to choose whether they want stock or skinned android. It can only benefit the manufacturers. Right now you have people NOT buying their devices because they want stock android. allowing users to choose would only have positive consequences (nobody has a reason not to buy your phone other than bad hardware)

  • David

    I’ve always preferred to have a stock phone compared to one with a manufacturer UI, however I think there are some benefits to having a manufacturer UI (like TouchWiz or Sense) on your phone. For example, you have certain apps like stop watches, timers, voice records, etc that are pretty much guaranteed to work flawlessly (as they have been tested by the manufacturer) on the phone compared to third party versions from Google Play. I talk about this in depth at http://www.phonebuff.com/2012/04/manufacturer-bloatware-good-thing/

  • http://aboyandhistv.blogspot.com mvndaai

    I use GoLauncher. I have an Samsung Infuse and TouchWiz is very annoying. I wish that I could turn it off forever and not eat up resources, but Go Launcher is just awesome and lets me do whatever I want… so I don’t complain too much.