Branding for the Sake of Branding

Last month, Nathaniel Mott told us why manufacturer’s custom skins should disappear. I and many others were quite excited for the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, hoping to catch a glimpse of the next generation of Android handsets running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but collectively, I think we were disappointed. Why? Certainly not because of the specs, or even the design, but because of the skins.

If we take a look at the HTC One X, it’s not an incredibly ugly phone when it comes to user interface, but it’s nowhere near as well designed as stock Ice Cream Sandwich. It seems that the phone makers have taken Android’s open, versatile nature to mean it is there for them to mess up.

A beautiful OS...

Customisation Is King

There’s many reasons people buy Android phones and, for a lot of us geeks, it’s because of the open and customised nature of the operating system. You can do a lot more to the stock OS on Android than on most mainstream platforms, which results in an incredibly versatile experience. Android is great for a range of people, from the average joe who walks into a phone store and walks out with an Android to the technology enthusiast who’s spent weeks researching the phone and making sure all his (or her) favourite tweaks are compatible.

Unfortunately, it seems that phone makers have taken one of the core advantages with Android as a sign to tell them to completely change the experience. In a way, they’re right to: when you buy a Samsung phone, you aren’t really buying an Android device, you’re buying a Samsung Phone whose underlying OS is Android. This allows them to bring their own unique spin to the user interface, and to differentiate them from the competition, but it still falls to the well-designed hands of stock Android.

It’s therefore understandable why phone makers do it, but there’s such a public demand for them to create a phone with stock Android that it becomes silly for them not to do so.

...compared to something that's not terrible, but not as good (despite the money, resources and time spent developing it).

The Kindle Fire Does It Well

My complaint is that Android skins don’t really offer much to the user experience. They generally provide a few included apps that are unique to the skin, but they are never as good as what is on offer in the Android Market. However, there is at least one example of where Android skins actually enhance a user’s experience.

The Kindle Fire really takes the idea of using Android to power your device, not just run it with an ugly skin to try and trick users into thinking it’s your own. Amazon has taken an operating system and skinned it in a such a way that it doesn’t look or feel like Android anymore, tweaking it to fit into their content ecosystem and conform to their design language.

Full disclosure: I don’t own a Kindle Fire simply because they’re not on offer here in the UK. However, But I have seen many demos of it and can tell that it’s a more closed experience, using Android’s ability to be skinned to create a well executed device (for the price point) that fits nicely into its own content ecosystem, much like Apple’s.

The Kindle Fire, a device that actually does some good when it comes to Android customisation.

For the End User

What Android allows that iOS doesn’t is for apps to take control of much more of the OS by default, and this is great for the end user as they can customise their own experience selectively. It’s possible to modify Android in all sorts of ways if you want. This is a great feature. However, like I said, this great feature has been taken and abused by phone makers who have halfheartedly applied a skin just to differentiate it from the competition, even though they’re turning away potential consumers by doing so.

If the customisation is bringing something that takes Android into a more unique form, or conforms to a better experience for the end user, then that’s great, and it’s certainly Amazon’s case. Unfortunately, for many makers including HTC, Samsung and Sony, it really feels like they’re branding Android just for the sake of it, providing features and skins that no-one asked for, nor wants.

Do you actually like the skins that come with your phone, or would you prefer stock Ice Cream Sandwich to ship with new devices?

  • Brian

    Honestly, I don’t think ICS looks all that great. Admittedly, I haven’t used it, but I also haven’t used HTC Sense 4.0 and that looks much more appealing to me. The HTC One X looks like it will be very pleasant to use, and stock ICS just looks…. inelegant.

  • Kitty

    I think this is a joke. Firstly, skins are there to give each phone a different taste and experience. For example I am currently using a HTC, and I would vastly prefer it over the plain looking stock ICS or even Samsung’s Touchwiz. If you say they are branding it just for the sake of doing so, shouldn’t those phone companies just ditch their unique skins, and apply the plain old ICS look?

  • Paul

    I have been more than happy with the HTC skinning. I’ve had a couple of their phones and also own a Flyer. They do simplify the experience, which for your average Joe has to be a good thing. The quality of their app is also top notch.
    I’ve also been using a Fireat work, and Amazon’s approach is executed extremely well.

  • Cyanide

    Actually ICS stock isn’t much of an eye candy. I prefer HTC Sense more than any other current OS look on android right now.

  • http://4allMobileMedia.Com SL

    I would love for them to provide a skin apk option with. Purchase. One that’s removable and reloadable with ease. Not using roots. That seems like overkill just to change your os experience.

  • Brandon Martinez

    To further your Kindle Fire point: I think Amazon is trying to get away from the whole “runs Android” thing; not just by creating a brand for itself, but removing the Android brand all-together.

    For example, if you look at the product page,, there are only two mentions of Android, and those relate directly to being able to access the Android Store. There’s not even a mention of what OS it runs (name, version, or otherwise).

  • Edmund

    I have not used Android 4.0, so I can’t say anything about that. But I currently have a HTC legend running 2.2, and there’s also another android phone in the family, a Galaxy Nexus running stock gingerbread. I have to say, HTC Sense is a great skin for Android, and I’d much rather have that then the stock skin. HTC manages to create a very elegant skin with useful widgets like the famous clock, calendar, calculator, etc.
    Interesting how everyone responded mentions HTC. I have seen the samsung and sony phones in store, and you may be right, I don’t feel like they add much. But HTC is another story.

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  • Dusan

    I’m all for stock look and feel of android phones. Or, better yes, make the user choose between stock and skinned look at initial setup. I have sgs2 that comes with excellent Touchwiz 4, still I removed it almost the first day. And HTC Sense is a memory hog and it greatly slows down the phone (I had HTC Desire way back so I know what I’m talking about)

  • mathew

    I bought a phone with HTC Sense. I thought it was OK. then I rooted it and tried CyanogenMod, and now my attitude is that I’ll never run Sense again.

    The stock UI was faster, features were less broken, it crashed less, battery life was better.

  • Steve

    I have to agree that I’m getting sick of every branded version of Android these days. It’s not bad enough that on the Samsung Galaxy, I’ve got a GB or so of uninstallable bloatware, but I just wish you didn’t have to root your android device just to get the baseline version of Android.

    Speaking of which, does anyone know if there are ANY Android phones on US carriers that have just stock Android installed? Or do I have to root every phone still?

    • Steve

      edit: Samsung Stratosphere, not Galaxy

  • Connor Turnbull

    In response to everyone, admittedly, Sense is one of the better skins available. But I stand by my point that it looks quite bad when put next to the much more well designed ICS.

  • David

    This is an ubergeek complaint going way back. The average person likes skins and doesn’t ever think of changing them. Many times the skins can be removed giving you what you want. What’s up for tomorrow?

    • Nick

      I agree. It’s all well for us to dislike skins and get rid of them if we want, but I hardly think the average consumer really cares – they pick the phone they like, and sometimes that means picking the ones with the UI they like. From that perspective, if all these companies gave us stock Android, I think most people wouldn’t like it.

      I mean, the Sense UI looks a lot better than stock IMO. I’m running CM7 and I prefer that for the performance, but I have to admit I did like Sense when I first started out. TouchWiz, not so much.

      I think that manufacturers have to compromise here. Do a bit of skinning, maybe keep the UI if they want, but cut down on bloatware and crapware, give users free rein in deleting or replacing stock apps, and keep whatever useful functionality they have (for instance, Samsung has this tilt feature that’s really useful when moving apps across home screens). Stuff like that can rightfully be kept because they add functionality. And to be fair I think HTC’s Sense really does add to the experience for an average consumer – and hey, if you don’t like it, then you’ll probably have enough know-how to root and change it.

  • Munjed

    my brother has a Samsung galaxy s 2 and I loved it by all means. But when I got my hands on my razr I loved what Motorola did with the razr. The device is distinguished by and fresh that I guessed they didn’t run the same ginger bread version. Aka 3.3.5. I really don’t like the mainly because everybody holding the iPhone has the same things going on on his service. And the fact that all of the other companies are running the Android now will lead to same results different brands and hardware but the same exact experience out of the boxif tweet are all to leave the stock untouched which is lame. Then what next, all if the devices are using dual core and same camera maybe and secondly the same display in each trend and now its the amoled . How would that be variety where smart phones will go back to the era where sunny Ericsson defeat by camera and design and Nokia compete with processor specs. I am very satisfied with the way things are.and not to worry each note and then the nexus will have it plane stock