I've had this article in mind for quite some time now, but haven't mustered up the courage to do it in fear of upsetting fanboys. But when the Fascinate shipped with Bing rather than Google as the default search engine, I could hold off no longer. For a Google Android phone to ship with a search engine other than Google, the search engine I know, love, and use on a daily basis (and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone here) is unthinkable; not offering a way to change it is even more of an outrage. Of course, Verizon isn't the only one committing this crime; AT&T did essentially the same thing with the Motorola Backflip, T-Mobile bastardized Sense on the MyTouch 3G Slide, and Sprint's had its share of Android-related evilness too (Sprint NASCAR? Sprint NFL? Who needs that crap installed by default?). The manufacturers - HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and others - have all participated in this game as well, even more so than the carriers. Simply put, Sense, MotoBlur, TouchWiz, and other skins are ruining the Android experience and must be stopped immediately.
The Issue At Hand
What's so wrong with these custom skins on top of Android? Why not add a little bit of Sense to your day? Or how about some Blur? Don't these skins add additional features? Yes, they do. And that's part of the reason why they're a problem.
Additional features mean your device can do more things. They make it more powerful. They make it what it is: a computer in your pocket. They also mean more bugs, more areas open to potential failure, and bloatware you'll never actually use but will be slowed down by. Take Motorola's MotoBlur skin: the thought behind it was innocent, merely a hand extended to the social networking generation. What came out of it, however, was a nightmare: ugly widgets everywhere, social network updates screaming in users' faces, and a status bar copied right from the iPhone. Or Dell's custom UI which they loaded on top of Android 1.5 for the Aero: most people didn't even realize it was Android hiding under that horrid disaster of a skin.
Decent skins like Sense UI are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. And even then, it would be hard to say I wouldn't prefer vanilla FroYo, without all the extras, lag, and memory bloat that HTC's customizations cause.
On a not completely unrelated note, we have another issue: bloatware. To be clear, bloatware isn't part of the skins which we've been talking about up to now, although it is useless and does detract from the overall Android experience, so it is part of the problem with what manufacturers are doing. In case you're not familiar with the term, bloatware consists of those useless apps that come pre-installed on your device (aka AT&T Navigator, VCast, City ID, Sprint NFL, and more). These apps usually cannot be uninstalled (without rooting and further hacking, that is) and tend to run in the background and update things on their own. That's right: part of the reason why your battery life is so bad and your performance isn't as good as it could be is bloatware. Ugh.
But the worst problem of all? Not bloatware, nor ugly skins, nor annoying social networks, nor anything of the sort; the #1 reason why custom skins have to go is fragmentation (fragmentation is why we're seeing 29.5% of devices still running Android 1.5 or 1.6). Obviously, custom skins aren't the same as vanilla Android, and therefore, every time an update to Android comes along, manufacturers have to modify their skins and work with the carriers before allowing any updates to hit their devices. The thing is, they're often reluctant to do so and sometimes end up not releasing the update at all, either because of running out of engineering resources due to complexities of merging their own code with the next version of Android or to force customers to upgrade to newer devices, or both.
And somehow, releasing a new device running Android 1.5 or 1.6 rather than the latest (currently 2.2) just because the manufacturer felt like adding custom branding on top of the OS (yes, that's you, Dell Aero, Dell, Streak, XPERIA X10, Garminfone, etc) just doesn't seem like it's in consumers' best interests.
Why Manufacturers Do This
So if it's bad for the end consumer, why are manufacturers doing this? Why would they want to ruin the Android experience? The answer is simple: branding.
Custom skins are like movies; which would you rather have: a movie that has obviously been produced purely for the purpose of commercializing a product, or one that has been made purely for the reason that someone wanted to make an enjoyable movie? Probably the second one. Which one is more likely to end up in theaters? The first one.
In other words, users don't necessarily want their Android devices to be skinned, but manufacturers do want those users to remember who made the device (and show off all its flashy - and branded - features to their friends, who may in turn buy the device for themselves), and custom skins are one form of doing so.
Additionally, adding bloatware apps into the mix makes the manufacturers and carriers much more money; how much do you think Microsoft paid Verizon to make Bing the default search engine on the Fascinate? It's a situation similar to what Dell does to its laptops: include a ton on apps (McAfee, anyone?) that most people will never use, simply because the developers of those apps gave huge monetary bonuses. It's less about the end user's experience with the product and more about the manufacturer's experience with the money made off that product.
What Can We Do?
So say you've already bought yourself an Epic 4G or a Droid 2, but you've decided you don't like Samsung's or Motorola's skin (I don't blame you). What can you do? If you're a tech-savvy user, it's no big deal: just root the phone and install a custom ROM.
The problem is, almost all Android users, American, European, Asian, and otherwise, are technically illiterate when it comes to hacking their phones. So instead, they can turn to a slightly less techie solution: installing a home replacement such as Launcher Pro or ADW.Launcher. This is great, since home replacements get rid of the crappy homescreen apps, like MotoBlur, but, unfortunately, don't eliminate bloatware or customizations made to existing Android apps.
Therefore, we must look to manufacturers and carriers themselves to change this. Now I'm not saying they shouldn't include one or two custom apps, or a couple of custom live wallpapers (though if they are going to be this bad or this boring, please don't), but when a brand new, top-of-the-line device comes pre-installed with widgets clogging up each and every homescreen (à la Droid 2 or Droid X), it's obvious something's gone wrong somewhere along the line. Likewise, we don't want you replacing Google with Bing or Yahoo!, Google Navigation with AT&T Navigator, or the stock camera app with some weird Samsung or HTC variant.
Please, manufacturers, carriers, and everyone else involved, just stop customizing the software on your devices and, most importantly of all, let Android be Android.