Why Manufacturer’s Custom Skins Should Disappear

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.

TouchWiz. Sexy. I can hear the cat calls from here!

Sexy. I can hear the cat calls from here!

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?

Remember when they were calling MotoBlur fun to use and amazing?

Remember when they were calling MotoBlur fun to use and amazing?

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?”

I wish you the best of luck explaining the difference between 'this' Android and 'that' Android.

I wish you the best of luck explaining the difference between 'this' Android and 'that' Android.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Stock Ice Cream Sandwich: Beautiful

Stock Ice Cream Sandwich: Not ugly.

Android has grown. It’s time for it to shed its skins.


  • Merk

    It doesn’t matter how good default Android is. It could have a UI so beautiful that it makes even the most hard-core Apple fan jealous and OEMs would STILL put their custom skin on it. OEMs are more concerned with branding than they are any of the points you mentioned.

    The only way to stop this is if Google said “If you want access to the Android Market you CAN NOT have a custom skin”. Google of course, won’t do this, because people are still buying skinned devices. A skinned device still delivers ads, so Google is still making money.

    • http://nathanielmott.net Nathaniel Mott

      That doesn’t necessarily mean that they would need access to the Market. Google makes money primarily off of the ads that they show through their search engine, provided the user leaves this as the default engine on their phone I don’t see Google caring all that much.

      That’s kind of my point, as well: the branding isn’t doing them any good. All they’re doing is confusing consumers, wasting resources, and leading to a jumbled mess. If you want to focus on branding, focus on what you do best: hardware.

  • http://www.casabona.org/blog/ Joe Casabona

    I agree 100%! One of the reasons I rooted my Incredible was to get rid of HTC Sense. It’s nice, but I like the authentic Android experience. If I want to customize, I will download a Launcher from the Market.

    • http://nathanielmott.net Nathaniel Mott

      That’s exactly what I did. I had grown sick of Sense and was excited by Gingerbread, so I went through the rooting process and flashed some ROMs (Cyanogenmod, mainly) just to get the ‘core’ Android experience.

  • Kevin Townsend

    Personally I think OEMs should offer a choice. I remember earlier versions of Cyanogen on my old G1 offered a choice between stock launcher and ADW (they later opted to go with ADW completely). This would please everybody, if you want Sense or Touchwiz just check the box to make it default if not then you can use the Stock Android launcher. Might also make it easier to get updates out to the handsets then too, just update the core OS then push it out, updating your launcher separately might be easier. Go Launcher or ADW seem to have no problem working across multiple Android versions.

    • http://michaeljameswilliams.com/ Michael James Williams

      That’s what I’d like to see!

    • http://nathanielmott.net Nathaniel Mott

      I’ll third that.

  • DJ

    So i just got a android phone yester day… how can i make my skin the default one?

  • Graham

    I don’t believe the skins are there because the manufacturers believe it improves the experience. Some manufacturers, notably HTC as you mentioned, do expand on the default functionality of android but these features could easily be added on manually and doesn’t explain why the manufacturers make it so difficult to remove the custom skins. No, I think the real reason they are there is for product differentiation.

    I’m not sure what the average user thinks but I think all of the phones are worse off for having custom skins. Some are less awful than others but that’s about it. The stock ICS UI is fantastic, they shouldn’t change it.

  • jon

    I agree they should focusless on their custom UI’s however I don’t think they should abandon them. custom UI’s have advantages. for one, everyone who has an android phone feels like it was tailored to them. However with iOS everyone knows it’s the same exact thing 6 billion other people have.

    I do think that if the companies like HTC worked more closly with Google at developing Pure Android, it would push the whole platform ahead a lot!

    Instead of all of these shitty off shoots that are full of bugs.

  • Derrik Lamanteer

    I still think that HTC sense is a better skin and it is a more beautiful interface than icecream. I would never want to have plane icecram when HTC has a better interface. If someone what’s icecream thy should get a phone that has it and not one that don’t have it. The reason I have a HTC phone if for its sense UI and I would not want icecream on it. Even though android has come farther HTC is still ahead I’d them in the user experience.

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  • David

    I like how Android can be customized, but I want it the same on each device. You can’t have your cake and eat it to.

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