Should Android users have the option to choose between custom software and stock Android?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: June 10, 2011

Ah, the bickering never ends when it comes to Android and third-party manufacturers' custom skins. We've all tried at least one of them and either endured the associated pain or reveled in its awesome, polished glory. Whether you're a fan of one or all of them, or even if you're an Android purist and hate every last one, they are something we constantly have to deal with. Custom user interfaces riddle the majority of Android phones around the world; and unaltered, stock Android devices are few and far between.

Sure, such custom interfaces may give Android a nice polished finish or may even make the learning curve less steep for newcomers, but having the custom skin installed on your phone is only half of the story. Although helpful and refreshing at times, custom user interfaces can be the cause of serious battery drain, intermittent lag and all sorts of other unnecessary problems that can drive Android newbies and veterans alike up the wall.

The biggest issue that arises from custom skins is one that tends to get under everyone's skin (yes, even Google's): agonizingly slow firmware updates.

When Google releases an update, their Nexus line is always the first to receive the new firmware, usually getting the update in a matter of days or weeks. At most, a month will pass before they receive the update. Other, non-stock phones, however, can take several months or even a year to receive their update. The majority of the lag time here is likely caused by individual manufacturers making their own alterations to Android, applying their custom interface to each individual device in their lineup.

The problem is, not everyone cares for these changes that the manufacturers have made and the skins can often come riddled with bugs and glitches. To a vast majority, quick updates and smooth performance outweigh having a cleaner looking version of Android.

What makes this more difficult though, is the fact that not everyone hates these skins. In fact, HTC's Sense UI and Samsung's TouchWiz are fairly popular. Motorola's MOTOBLUR, or whatever they plan to make of it down the road, also has a few that (somehow) love it. Manufacturers have fueled a lot of resources into making them and they are a strong part of the Android experience, for better or worse. Nixing the skins altogether is hardly the answer and will never realistically happen.

Google has stepped in to try and resolve some of the issues by dictating what changes manufacturers can or cannot make. This could certainly help churn updates out a little quicker, but there has been no noticeable change thus far. For those daring enough to root and flash ROMs, new firmware can usually be installed in a matter of days after Google officially releases the software. But what about users that are not adventurous enough to dive deep into a developers' forum to find and flash a ROM composed of Google's latest software? They are left in limbo for anywhere from three months to a year, constantly wondering if and when the manufacturer will ever release the new software.

The solution is blatant, simple and everyone wins in the end. I've been saying it for months now. People come to Android for choice, why should they not have the same level of choice when it comes to software? Sure, you have the option to choose one manufacturer over another, thus you are inadvertently choosing one version of software. But who is to say you shouldn't be able to run vanilla Android on an HTC or Motorola phone? Cramming a custom skin – that may or may not work well for users – down the throats of customers and forcing them to wait for months on end for updates is hardly the answer. 

The easiest way to appease all users (the Android purists and those who adore custom skins) is to release two versions of software for the device, at both the launch and for every firmware update thereafter. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but it actually isn't at all. Considering these manufacturers have to get the latest version of Android up and running on their devices before they begin making alterations, the extra work done by the company is minimal.

For the sake of simplicity, we will assume the device we are talking about is the Samsung Galaxy S II. During the first boot, the users will be met with a prompt screen, asking which software version they would like to install. Those who want to take the device to its fullest potential could flash CyanogenMod or vanilla Android, and those who love TouchWiz could just as easily run their favorite custom skin. If the user slips up or decides they chose the wrong version, returning to the initial boot process would be as simple as performing a factory data reset.

This would slow down the initial boot process by roughly five minutes but the advantages are pretty obvious and easily outweigh the current method: user choice (which is what Android is all about anyway) and the option of quick updates in the place of manufacturer skins, or vice versa.

Samsung has recently shown some support for third-party developers, namely the CyanogenMod team. Since they're interested in options other than TouchWiz, this isn't outside the realm of possibility – I could actually see Samsung supporting an idea like this. An initial boot option like this is the answer to the cries of millions of Android users stuck on old software versions. It could also end the ridiculous trend of high-end Android phones shipping with old versions of software.

To all Android manufacturers: Who's ready to put on their big boy pants and step up to the plate?