Last month, Nathaniel Mott told us why manufacturer’s custom skins should disappear. I and many others were quite excited for the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, hoping to catch a glimpse of the next generation of Android handsets running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but collectively, I think we were disappointed. Why? Certainly not because of the specs, or even the design, but because of the skins.
If we take a look at the HTC One X, it’s not an incredibly ugly phone when it comes to user interface, but it’s nowhere near as well designed as stock Ice Cream Sandwich. It seems that the phone makers have taken Android’s open, versatile nature to mean it is there for them to mess up.
A beautiful OS...
Customisation Is King
There’s many reasons people buy Android phones and, for a lot of us geeks, it’s because of the open and customised nature of the operating system. You can do a lot more to the stock OS on Android than on most mainstream platforms, which results in an incredibly versatile experience. Android is great for a range of people, from the average joe who walks into a phone store and walks out with an Android to the technology enthusiast who’s spent weeks researching the phone and making sure all his (or her) favourite tweaks are compatible.
Unfortunately, it seems that phone makers have taken one of the core advantages with Android as a sign to tell them to completely change the experience. In a way, they’re right to: when you buy a Samsung phone, you aren’t really buying an Android device, you’re buying a Samsung Phone whose underlying OS is Android. This allows them to bring their own unique spin to the user interface, and to differentiate them from the competition, but it still falls to the well-designed hands of stock Android.
It’s therefore understandable why phone makers do it, but there’s such a public demand for them to create a phone with stock Android that it becomes silly for them not to do so.
...compared to something that's not terrible, but not as good (despite the money, resources and time spent developing it).
The Kindle Fire Does It Well
My complaint is that Android skins don’t really offer much to the user experience. They generally provide a few included apps that are unique to the skin, but they are never as good as what is on offer in the Android Market. However, there is at least one example of where Android skins actually enhance a user’s experience.
The Kindle Fire really takes the idea of using Android to power your device, not just run it with an ugly skin to try and trick users into thinking it’s your own. Amazon has taken an operating system and skinned it in a such a way that it doesn’t look or feel like Android anymore, tweaking it to fit into their content ecosystem and conform to their design language.
Full disclosure: I don’t own a Kindle Fire simply because they’re not on offer here in the UK. However, But I have seen many demos of it and can tell that it’s a more closed experience, using Android’s ability to be skinned to create a well executed device (for the price point) that fits nicely into its own content ecosystem, much like Apple’s.
The Kindle Fire, a device that actually does some good when it comes to Android customisation.
For the End User
What Android allows that iOS doesn’t is for apps to take control of much more of the OS by default, and this is great for the end user as they can customise their own experience selectively. It’s possible to modify Android in all sorts of ways if you want. This is a great feature. However, like I said, this great feature has been taken and abused by phone makers who have halfheartedly applied a skin just to differentiate it from the competition, even though they’re turning away potential consumers by doing so.
If the customisation is bringing something that takes Android into a more unique form, or conforms to a better experience for the end user, then that’s great, and it’s certainly Amazon’s case. Unfortunately, for many makers including HTC, Samsung and Sony, it really feels like they’re branding Android just for the sake of it, providing features and skins that no-one asked for, nor wants.
Do you actually like the skins that come with your phone, or would you prefer stock Ice Cream Sandwich to ship with new devices?