The face of Android

John Walton
Cell Phone Editor
Published: October 15, 2008

Phone makers have been working with carriers to dress up and customize popular user interfaces in some exciting and beautiful ways, but evidence of the underlying OS often peeks through the cracks of a shiny, friendly veneer.

Take for example, the HTC TouchFlo 3D interface, which is incredibly sleek and fluid, as well as central to the identity of the phones that feature it. Certain aspects of Windows Mobile become evident at inopportune times - reminding you that TouchFlo is only a skin, and that the somewhat awkward and familiar settings that you've struggled with on other phones have returned to disrupt your experience.

Unlike Windows Mobile, Android is open: the Linux Kernel is open; the Android software stack is open; and the platform is open. Practically, this means that the software on Android-equipped phones is much friendlier for developers and designers to work with. With Android, customization can be much more thorough and integrated with the operating system.

This openness presents the possibility of a total reworking of the Android interface for different phone manufacturers and cell carriers. Perhaps the Android we know is just its stock persona. It makes sense that carriers and OEMs would want to give their Android-powered phone a character of its own and perhaps some software branding.

I think that what I like to call the speciation of Linux in the world of personal computers could be indicative of its future in the cell phone market. At least in terms of appearances. After all, these two spheres are becoming less distinguishable over time.

Take look at the netbook, or subnotebook niche, where Linux is chosen because of its solid performance on low-spec machines and as a means to deliver a cheaper product by avoiding software licensing fees.

The Eee PC from Asus uses the Xandros operating system, which is a Distribution of Linux featuring the KDE user interface. Xandros is based on Corel Linux, which branches from Debian Linux.

Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 ships with another Debian-based flavor of Linux: Ubuntu's netbook remix. The default flavor of Ubuntu comes with the Gnome UI.

There's also the Cloudbook, which has since switched to Gnome, but began with the Enlightenment interface. It runs on the Ubuntu-based gOS.

Confused? I haven't even mentioned the user interfaces out there for those who don't choose Gnome or KDE, such as Fluxbox, IceWM, XFCE, etc. And if you look beyond the handful of computers that ship with Linux already installed, into the realm of downloadable distributions, the variety can be mind-boggling.

The point is this: the examples above are all aesthetically different versions of the same operating system. They all share one thing in common. The heart of the OS: its core; the kernel. Deep down, Linux is Linux. What makes each flavor unique is the applications the distributors package it with, and their choice of user interface. There are some other geeky distinctions, but on the surface, it's mostly an issue of taste. That's what Linux is all about; choices ? both for distributors and consumers. 

Up to this point, Linux has played a very minor role in the cell phone market. Motorola has embraced the OS in some of its phones and we can see that their decisions mirror those of netbook manufacturers - the trend is to reconfigure or completely redesign the UI, giving the software an identity to be associated with the OEM (or in the case of cell phones, the service provider). I see no reason why Google's Android should be exempt from this pattern.

A company called The Astonishing Tribe, or TAT, contributed to the interface for Android. While they haven't made any specific comment on future plans, their website does feature some videos of a breath-taking interface we haven't yet seen in the wild. Check them out. (Clickable images provide a video.)

Once you get over that sexiness, take a look a list of companies that have joined the Open Handset Alliance, and think about the various potential reasons for their doing so.

One of the things that makes open source software interesting, is the way manufacturers can customize the user interface. And one of the things that makes industry hype so much fun is endless speculation - something I enjoy heartily.

Products mentioned