How Android manufacturers should offer custom interfaces

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: November 13, 2011

This past Friday, I speculated on what custom Android interfaces, made by none other than popular OEMs like HTC, Samsung and Motorola, would look like in Ice Cream Sandwich. Will they be as deeply nested as they currently are in Froyo and Gingerbread? Or will they be more Honeycomb-esque and leave much of the stock interface alone, and only adding slight touches with special icons, widgets and a different colored Action Bar? Only time will tell.

But as I expected, the comments started flowing in, many suggesting different ways that OEMs should deploy said skins. Many reiterated my suggestion from many months ago about users having a choice between an OEM's custom skin and stock Android. One thing I am certain of is that the current method is far from efficient and limits choices – which is one of the largest selling points for Android to begin with.

So how should Android manufacturers deploy their custom interfaces? Here are a few of the best ideas I have come up with, discussed with colleagues and have heard echoed across the Internet multiple times now:

  • Give users the option to choose either stock or a custom skin at initial boot
  • Ship all devices with stock Android and offer Sense UI, TouchWiz or Motorola Applications Platform in Market as a free download for specific devices
  • Ship all devices with stock Android and offer the skins in Android Market as paid widget and app packages for all Android devices, irrespective of manufacturer
  • Ship with a custom UI but allow the user to opt out

Each of these options have two things in mind: choice and update times. Offering a stock version of Android to customers would allow them to get their updates to the latest version of Android months in advance, barring OEMs don't take their anger out on users who refute their custom skins. This is where Google should step in and mandate a time frame in which stock updates should be pushed to those who want it.

That said, each of these scenarios comes with a few problems of their own.

If users are prompted at the initial boot to choose between stock Android and, say, Sense UI, it would only add to the confusion. Android newcomers would have almost no idea what either of those options are. Say they choose one and later decide they wanted to try the other instead. The only way to switch between the two would be to perform a factory data reset and start from scratch. This is not exactly ideal or convenient.

The second idea is something Dustin Early of Android and Me and I have discussed a time or two. In this scenario, the device ships with stock Android. After the user logs into their Gmail account and gets the device mostly setup, they will be prompted with a message that, if accepted, will take them to a free download from Android Market. They can then download the individual components (widgets, icons, apps, etc.) – or all – of the manufacturer's interface. In this instance, if the user decides they do not like the chances, going back is as simple as uninstalling an application or two.

The other option I have seen commenters around the Web suggesting is similar to Earley's idea. However, instead of the custom UIs being free and specific to one manufacturer's devices (i.e.: Sense UI being specific to HTC-made devices, TouchWiz being specific to Samsung's phones, etc.), the packages would be paid – maybe $5 or $10 – and available to any Android phone. Although this is more of a far-fetched dream, I know plenty of people that would pay good money to have Samsung's TouchWiz on an HTC handset and vice versa.

So what's the problem? Well, it's likely only a problem in the eyes of the manufacturers themselves. When custom interfaces first began, they were only really skins. If you had the know-how, you could go into Application Settings, reset the default launcher and disable the skin. After that, OEMs took another route and have since made interfaces much more than just skins that can be applied and wiped away. They are deeply nested into the core of the software (kernel) and are in their own right an entirely different ROM. While this is something we all, interface lovers and Android purists alike, could agree on, this would like be a step in the wrong direction to manufacturers.

Lastly, devices could come pre-fitted with a custom skin – and just that, stock Android with an overlay, not an entirely different ROM. Much like the two aforementioned possibilities, the user would be prompted. However, instead of being taken to Android Market, this time, they can opt out of the manufacturers' changes and revert back to stock Android.

It's not perfect. And the likeliness of a manufacturer actually doing something like this is slim to none, unfortunately. But it seems to be the most obvious way to answer slow software updates, fragmentation and the random, plaguing bugs in software like Sense UI and MAP. If OEMs aren't going to slow down their production rates and cut back on the number of phones they're pumping out each year, they need to at least lighten the load on the software front. They obviously can't keep up with both, and offering a universal, installable package (either free or paid, and for only their devices or for all Android phones) seems to be the best approach to solving that. How they do that is irrelevant in the end.

What say you, folks? Would you rather all phones ship with stock Android and OEMs cut back their efforts in the software department? Would you pay for Sense UI if it were a premium add-on? Do you like the idea of Sense UI on a Samsung phone? Have some suggestions of your own? Sound off and give your thoughts below! I will add any particularly interesting ideas to the list above.

Products mentioned