It seems like you can’t talk about Android without talking about fragmentation. While the sheer number of phones is largely to blame, one of the bigger contributors to Android’s lack of unification is the manufacturers’ practice of adding a custom skin to the core Android operating system.
This needs to stop. Here’s why.
One: They’re Ugly
You can call Ice Cream Sandwich what you like, but ugly probably isn’t going to come into the discussion. With a focus on smooth transitions, a nice blue accent, and the custom-designed Roboto typeface, Android 4.0 definitely brings the pretty.
Contrast that with something like TouchWiz. Samsung’s custom skin adds a bit of flavor to the core Android experience, but most of the changes are unnecessary and lead to people doing crazy things to their phones. If I have to see one more chicken-scratch-font Android home screen I’m going to scream.
Two: They’re More Work
Getting Android to work with a given handset has got to be hard enough. For every bit of hardware you produce you’re going to have to make Android suit the phone, from making sure everything works properly (like, you know, the battery) to avoiding weird conflicts between the core operating system and applications.
Not to pick on Samsung (okay, maybe totally to pick on Samsung) but these skins are clearly more trouble than they’re worth. How the company that produced the two latest flagship Android devices (the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, respectively) can ship personal media players that run an older version of Android and an older version of their custom skin is beyond me.
Sure, the skins add a bit of differentiation to the mix, but at this point it’s fair to say that having a stock Android phone is more profitable than devoting a team to developing a custom skin that needs constant care.
Three: You Don’t Need a Full Skin for a Few Apps
Some companies create excellent Android applications. HTC in particular has been known to make some good apps that cover some of the core functionalities that aren’t available in stock Android, like Peep (a Twitter client) and a customized weather application. If they want to develop those applications, I say that they should go ahead – but why would you tear down and rebuild a room just to add a new coat of paint?
The Android Market is open. Manufacturers are free to put some applications on their devices (and they also happen to abuse this practice, but that’s not relevant for this point) and there’s no reason why they can’t bundle their own applications with stock Android. Whatever customers you may ‘lose’ because they can’t run the latest version of Sense will be more than made up for by the money you save on developing the software and the number of people that want a stock Android phone.
Four: Android Has Finally Matured
There was a time when custom skins were all that people could talk about. Sense was lauded as a much prettier and more responsive skin on top of the then-immature Android operating system. The ability to ‘fix’ the software turned out to be a boon for HTC, as their phones became more and more popular.
Now there’s no need. Stock Android has gotten to the point where it can appeal to more than the geeks that are willing to root their phone and install CyanogenMod or whatever ROM of the week they want to play with just to escape the clutches of their manufacturer’s chosen skin. Ice Cream Sandwich is clean, functional, and ready to be shown off, if the manufacturers would give it a chance to shine.
Five: It Confuses Consumers
When someone reads ‘Android’ they should know what to expect. For many of us it means the stock Ice Cream Sandwich experience, but for others it means something entirely different. A person stuck using the old MotoBlur is not only caught in some form of perpetual hell, but also confused when their friend shows them a phone running Sense. “If they’re both Android, why do they look different?”
This is a detriment to consumers. It’s no longer about choosing between Windows Phone, iOS, and Android; now it’s about choosing between Windows Phone, iOS, Sense, MotoBlur, TouchWiz, stock Android, and the other skin-of-the-month.
Provide a unified front and compete on the merits of hardware instead of software. That’s your job, so stick with it.
Android has come a long way in the past few years. Gone is the boring grey, the vibrant green, and the mish-mash of typefaces. Here is the unified, modern look with a cool blue and a custom, clean typeface.
Android has grown. It’s time for it to shed its skins.