What will custom skins look like in Ice Cream Sandwich?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: November 11, 2011

One of the most prominent advantages to Android is all of the different flavors it comes in. With the help of old versions and custom interfaces from the handful of partner manufacturers, entering the world of Android is like walking into a Ben & Jerry's. Choices stretch far and wide and chances are, if you have any liking for the little green robot at all, there is one particular flavor that suits your needs more than all the others.

But it's these very custom interfaces and varying software versions that add to the mounding issue of fragmentation. Instead of just taking Google's source code for the latest version of Android and plugging in the necessary drivers to get the software working on their specific hardware, they take a little lot of extra time to tweak the software in their own way. In custom interfaces like Sense UI, TouchWiz and Motorola Applications Platform, nearly no inch of interface goes unchanged.

This is, admittedly, a time-consuming process and largely played a part in the formation of the Android Update Alliance. In an effort to not talk about fragmentation any more than I have to, Google has taken action since Gingerbread was released and now all customization plans must first be approved by Andy Rubin himself before the manufacturer can get official Google support on their device. If they do not abide by Google's guidelines, their devices will not have access to Google's Android Market, Maps, and other services that really make Android ... well, Android.

We also know that Google endgame is to reduce the need for customizations as much as possible. Of course, OEMs aren't going to give up that easily. The custom interfaces, albeit not my favorite and undeniably cause for some of the worst glitches and bugs on Android handsets to date, are also part of what makes Android what it is today. The software is, after all, open source and manufacturers should be able to make some changes.

So where is middle ground?

Well, presumably this is where Ice Cream Sandwich comes into the picture. If you consider Honeycomb for a minute, we questioned whether there was a need or whether there would ever be any customizations made to it. After a few months of baking, two of the three major custom skins emerged in tablet form: Sense UI and TouchWiz UX. Although very similar to the changes made in phone versions like TouchWiz 4.0 and Sense 3.0 and 3.5, the tablet versions of these skins were much more lightweight. Changes were not nearly as drastic as seen in phone-specific iterations.

My question is: how will this play out when it comes to handsets? Has Google laid down the law? Will the custom UIs in Ice Cream Sandwich be as subtle as they were in Honeycomb? Or is that just a tablet thing? Will we see full-on, to the core customizations from players like HTC, Motorola and Samsung? Or has Google finally made the stock UI in Android pretty enough that OEMs will not have to modify so much to make the software visually pleasing?

Unfortunately for you Android purists out there, this doesn't mark the end of Sense UI or TouchWiz. We've already caught word of Sense 4.0, which is supposedly built off of ICS. So if you want a flagship HTC- or Samsung-made device without a skin, you may want to stick to Google's Nexus line.

My guess? I'm forced to believe custom skins will be a balance between top-to-bottom customizations and the subtle changes in Honeycomb -- maybe some specific widgets and UI colors, and a slightly altered Settings page. I may be wrong, but I can't imagine the changes being nested so deeply in Ice Cream Sandwich. The main reason? Update times. Now that the Android Update Alliance is in place -- barring OEMs abide by it strictly -- they will need to lighten the customizations or work double time to meet deadlines

What say you, folks? Will Android custom skins be as in-depth in Ice Cream Sandwich? Will they be more subtle, like in Honeycomb? Which would you prefer? Do you, like me, wish custom skins would disappear forever?