A better way for Google to handle UI overlays in Android

This guest article was submitted by Aaron Orquia.


Android's openness is often touted as one of its best features. It is praised because it allows people to do what they want with the phones they own. Yet that openness actually causes one of the more common complaints about Android as well: fragmentation.

Although manufacturers and some consumers like skinning phones, the issue of custom UIs is one that many think Google should do something about. I have an idea of what that could be below, but first let's discuss some of the reasons UI overlays at not a good things for users of the Android platform.

First, custom UIs create an inconsistent experience across devices. Custom setups can cause frustration when a consumer buys an Android device expecting to have a feature they had in one manufacturer's version, but that is not in the device they purchased.

Second, they can slow phones down. Some custom skins are supposed to help performance, but most of the time running extra processes on top of Android's core end up slowing the device.

Finally, and most importantly, they cause delays in the update process. Many phones do not get updated to the latest version of Android because the manufacturer first has to skin the new version before releasing it. Obviously, this causes much frustration, not only because consumers are not getting the cool update all their friends are getting, but also because they do not know the reason their update is being delayed. Even if the skinning does not actually take much time, it is speculated that many companies use that excuse to avoid giving out updates to older devices.

It is obvious that UI skinning has some distinct disadvantages. Despite this, skins continue to exist, partly because manufacturers like to differentiate their products, and partly because some people actually like having the custom UI. So, some people like having custom skins while others want Google to prevent manufacturers from skinning devices. What should Google do about this? Allowing people to modify Android is part of being open, but having proprietary skins hardly seems congruent with that philosophy.

Although there are many potential solutions to this issue, I would like to propose one that embraces another of Android’s core ideas: choice.

I think Google should give both users and manufacturers a choice. Manufacturers should be able to choose whether they want to apply a custom skin to Android, but consumers should be able to decide if they want it. Google could do this by forcing hardware manufacturers to ship a vanilla version of Android, while allowing them to put in a screen during setup or install a program that would ask the user whether they would like to install the specific manufacturer's "experience."

Take, for example, Samsung phones, which are somewhat notorious for their custom UI. Under my proposed model, users buy the phone with stock Android. This is simple and gives the people who want stock Android what they want. However, when users setup the phone, there would be a prompt or widget that asked them if they wanted to install the TouchWiz UI. This prompt could even show screenshots of the experience or link to a YouTube video. That way, new users could decide which Android experience they wanted without third-party launchers like LauncherPro or ADW.Launcher being their only alternatives.

I think that this arrangement would keep everyone happy. Manufacturers could continue skinning phones, customers could get phones with their favorite skins on them or a totally stock Android experience. But this is only my opinion, and there are many others out there. Do you want stock Android mandated, or would you like manufacturers to continue locking or attempting to lock people into their experience?

This guest article was submitted by Aaron Orquia.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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