While most consumers are still trying to figure out the differences between Froyo, Gingerbread or Ice Cream Sandwich, Android enthusiasts are praising the latest iteration of Android. Android 4.0 delivered a myriad of new functionalities to Android, including a shiny new user interface (UI). The Android development team at Google spent countless hours making Android’s new UI “enchanting, beautiful and seductive.” With such a dramatically improved UI, manufacturers would certainly ditch their custom skins and bring back some unity to Android’s user experience – or would they?
There was certainly hope from many Android enthusiasts that the stock Android UI would be embraced by all. Unfortunately, early leaks and previews from Sony, Samsung and HTC have disappointed many since Android manufacturers seem to be chugging along on the same course as before, spending the majority of their time working on custom skins for Android rather than focusing solely on updating older phones to the latest version of Android. But is this really a bad thing?
If you read through the comments on this site you will notice a recurring theme: our readers are very outspoken about the virtues of the stock Android UI, claiming that “Google finally got it right” and asking “why would manufacturers mess around with perfection” while bullying (down voting) commenters who showed support for HTC Sense, TouchWiz or MotoBLUR (or whatever Motorola is calling it these days).
Personally, I’m a big fan of stock Android and will agree that Google has finally delivered a UI that’s better than most custom skins produced by OEMs. The problem is that Google’s new UI improvements for Android are merely a composite refinement of all the features Motorola, HTC and Samsung have had for quite some time. If you pick apart the new UI piece by piece you will notice that there’s really nothing new. Looking back over the past three years, you’ll see that Google’s UI improvements with every new version of Android include borrowed ideas that were introduced by others.
Below are a few examples of some of the features included in Android 4.0 which were originally pioneered in one or more custom skins produced by Android manufacturers.
Social Media Integration
Facebook and Twitter integration into the contacts application was first introduced by HTC and was adopted a few months later by Motorola in 2009. Both Motorola and HTC served up your contact’s latest status update or a notification of an impending birthday when you called or received a call from one of your contacts. Google introduced a more limited Facebook integration with Android 2.1.
When Android first launched, Google only had three widgets and developers had to wait until Android 1.5 before they were able to create their own. Fortunately, HTC jumped into the deep end with HTC Sense and delivered several dozen widgets which also featured animations. The HTC flip clock is probably the most recognizable and mimicked Android widget. Motorola, Samsung, LG and even Huawei introduced animated widgets to their custom versions of Android before Google got around to it with Honeycomb.
While HTC kept adding more and more widgets to its Sense library (most of which were simply different sizes of the same widget), Motorola chose to take a different route with the introduction of the DROID X by introducing re-sizable widgets. Users could now choose how large or small they wanted a widget to be. The best part about Motorola’s widget resizing feature is that the widget layout changes depending on which size you choose. As with animated widgets, Google introduced re-sizable widgets in Honeycomb, but the functionality was not nearly as advanced as Motorola’s.
With Sense, HTC has always been on the forefront of the customizable lock screen. Early iterations included music controls and details of missed phone calls and text messages. With HTC Sense 3.0, HTC took the customizable lock-screen to a whole new level by giving users a variety of different skins which displayed stock quotes, animated weather, pictures and social media updates from friends. Users were also given the option to choose four different applications which could be launched directly from the lock-screen. The Android team added new features to the lock-screen in Android 4.0 which allow users to launch the dialer or camera applications, but there is still no option to add any user customization.
When it comes to features, many of the custom Android skins produced by OEMs clearly have the Android team beat. But this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Motorola and Samsung have been in the mobile phone business for decades and one of HTC’s biggest accomplishments before Android came along was adding a custom UI on top of Windows Mobile which finally made the OS usable for everyday consumers.
My assumption is that there is fear among Android enthusiasts that manufacturers will simply take Android 4.0 and all its new features and cover it up with their own UI without adding any new functionality on top of it. While I can’t guarantee that every custom skin will look nicer than what the Android team has whipped up, the majority of new phones running Android 4.0 with a custom skin will have all the base features with additional features which give users more control and an enhanced experience.
The reason Android is successful isn’t because Google is doing all the work. The leading manufacturers take Google’s base code and add their own tweaks to differentiate their products from the competition while adding features which Google has not yet dreamed up. If everyone simply took Android 4.0 and loaded it onto their phones, the rapid pace of Android’s innovations would slow to a crawl which might lead to the platform’s demise.
I know there will always be a lot of supporters of stock Android, but I hope those of you who prefer your vanilla UI treatment can learn to appreciate custom skins a little more. Google has done an incredible job with the Android 4.0 UI, but lets not forget to give credit to the manufacturers who pioneered many of those same features months or even years before Google wrapped them into the Android fold.