We constantly hear about how smartphones are the evolutionary next-step in personal computing. Laptops sat atop this pedestal in the late 1990's, and tablets may soon come to share this title with their smartphone cousins.

But there's a glaring issue with smartphones: the players in the smartphone industry are to smartphones what Taco Bell is to choice of meat in your burrito. There's not a whole lot of wiggle room, and it's an increasingly take it or leave it sort of affair. HTC's new boot restore on the G2 and Desire Z, Motorola's eFuse bootloader protection, and Apple's extensive efforts to thwart jailbreaking on every iPhone software update are all evidence a trend that is decidedly against the spirit of personal computing. That trend is total user environment control.

The Underlying Overlay Issue

Android has tried to buck this trend, but manufacturer overlays (TouchWiz, MOTOBLUR, Sense, whatever Sony's thing is) have come to nearly every mainstream Android device on the market. This was a risk Google had to take with Android - if it didn't offer the freedom to manufacturers to rebrand the user environment, it would be difficult to get any of them to play ball. While Gingerbread is going to attempt to fix the "issues" that have led to these overlays (a stark UI, complex menus), it would seem that more than anything those so-called problems were merely a pretext to inevitable manufacturer-mutation of Android.

As HTC has made clear with HTCSense.com and its recent update to Sense, its overlay isn't going anywhere any time soon. There's no reason to think other manufacturers will abandons theirs', either. Google is at a point where its philosophy on Android is coming face to face with the market, but it has also gained considerable clout with manufacturers (see the Skyhook lawsuit) to use in asserting that philosophy.

If Google keeps its policies on overlays relaxed, Android may begin to fragment outwardly - with overlays coming to define phones rather than the underlying operating system. This would be bad. As most of us can agree - hardware manufacturers are generally not good at making software, and vice versa (Apple being the notable exception).

The more hardware manufacturers invest into developing their overlays, the more resistant they will be to updating the underlying platform - and Android devices will start to stagnate and fall behind strict-compliance phone OS's like WP7 or iOS, or even Blackberry. Sony has already shown this can happen with the X10, a phone that shipped with an obsolete version of Android, and will soon be updating to a slightly less obsolete version. Motorola took nearly three months to adapt Froyo to its range of Android devices. Why? Ensuring compatibility with proprietary, branded software that most users get next to nothing out of.

Can We Fix This?

How can Google prevent this? Make Android compliance standards stricter.

Google controls access to a lot of wonderful apps for your phone based upon Android compliance testing (Gmail, Market, Maps, Talk, Voice Search). Manufacturers like phones to have these apps, because these apps are the functional selling points of the device oftentimes. Google has some specific compliance testing that goes on with every device, but if a phone with an overlay like Motorola's DROID X can pass, I don't think the bar is set high enough. What should Google specifically look for?

  • Performance: demand a certain level of UI responsiveness. People make their biggest judgments on UI latency, and my biggest problem with overlays is loss of speed.
  • Replacement apps: Don't allow manufacturers to replace native apps - adding their own is acceptable.
  • Hardware: Do like Microsoft, set a minimum bar for hardware requirements on Android phones (resolution, processor speed, RAM, GPS/radio class, screen size minimum)
  • Update Compliance: A device must ship with the version of Android that was current 60 days before the phone's release. If a phone ships with an obsolete version, it must receive an update to the current version within 60 days.

What else can Google do? It can make Gingerbread awesome, and then impose these new standards on device manufacturers. If Gingerbread is as massive a UI update as Google has been leading us to believe, it should have no problem in convincing manufacturers to do whatever's necessary to meet standards. Given Android's massive impact on HTC, Motorola, and Samsung - I think it's time we hold the device manufacturers to a higher standard.

Either way, if Google doesn't do something, manufacturers may dig Android an early grave.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Androidman

    I am with you on this one

  • Mike357

    Great article...

    Sent from my Epic 4G that's still waiting for Froyo...

  • http://commonsware.com Mark Murphy

    Google already does most of what you ask for. The Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) -- whose requirements must be met to get the Android Market and so forth -- already sets forth requirements for performance ("9. Performance Compatibility") and hardware ("8. Hardware Compatibility"). You may disagree with what they require, but they do have requirements, and those requirements get updated with each subsequent release. You can get the latest version of this document at http://source.android.com/compatibility/index.html.

    With respect to "Don’t allow manufacturers to replace native apps – adding their own is acceptable", the CDD stipulates mandatory APIs more so than apps. From a usability standpoint, I am skeptical that the benefits of having the stock apps there outweighs the user confusion that will result (e.g., two music players, two dialers, two calendars). However, there may be ways to handle that.

    With regards to your "A device must ship with the version of Android that was current 60 days before the phone’s release", that's just unrealistic. The lead time from software release to hardware release is much longer than 60 days, particularly for new devices, what with regulatory compliance, assembly line scheduling, etc. There are reasons why Google worked hand-in-glove with HTC on Android 1.0/1.5 and Motorola on Android 2.0 to get devices with those capabilities on the market around the time of the OS release -- that level of collaboration was needed, and it had impacts on everyone else (e.g., the 1.6/2.0 rapid-fire releases).

    I am not saying that your aims are invaild. Rather, I am saying that there is already a framework for much of what you ask for, and you need to take into account the realities of a manufacturing process along the way.

  • Jay

    Cyanogen Mod goes a loooong way to fix these issues too. :)

    • BenR

      Not with eFuse or other hardware based DRM crap added in to stop the CUSTOMER from doing what they wish with their device.
      I doubt I'll buy another Moto phone just because of this .. and if the other manufacturers do this then I see no reason to not buy an iPhone .. same walled garden and it's got the usual slick Apple UI.
      Google needs to put their foot down ... open source doesn't mean screw the brand into the ground. :/

  • chris ponciano

    I would like to say it was the simple notion that most people are idiots, yet they go ahead and try to mess with their stuff when they have no clue what they are doing, so in that point, locking down the hardware is for their own good, however theres two main problems I associate with that:

    1. If it were simply for the sole reason for protecting constant RMA's to the manufacture due to user end error, but its not. All in all, everything comes down to $$$, and when you have something as wonderful as free development, free apps, and even cracked or pirated apps, you lost money, and these companies all want their 30%.

    2. Beyond the fact that everyone should be, and according to recent laws, are legally allowed to jailbreak their devices to their hearts content, the whole notion of protecting people from their own mistakes leaves a sour taste in peoples mouths. Images of self aware machines and robots enslaving people for their own good come to mind when you talk about protecting people from themselves. Yeah we sometimes break shit, but thats out own fault, and if we didn't already know that getting into it, we should have before we went messing with stuff we didn't know about.

    • BenR

      What they should do and by they I mean the carriers ... they should charge $100 to flash the phone back to stock ... just LIKE Best Buy will if one screws up their Win7 install. It's quite simple. If the user screws up their phone and can't fix it ... bend them over to fix it. Not that hard and is a good stream of cash. :)

  • chris ponciano

    oh yeah, regarding the whole setting the bar higher for manufactures concept really is a MUST DO. Its hard to argue that "android phones" are superior when the soups getting watered with a bunch of half-assed crap phones that are running old/outdated software revisions as well as obsolete and sometimes laughable hardware specs. Especially these Android tablets Ive been seeing are just shameful, it doesn't help anything when you undercut a possibly good device like that Samsung tablet or others in that league and you shove 100 shitty china tablets in front of it running 200Mhz processors and Android 1.6.

  • BenR

    I have a Droid X and I don't care if Moto puts blur, shimmer or whatever they want to call their UI on their phones BUT they MUST .. MUST .. stop this eFuse crap. I bought an awesomely designed piece of hardware and if *I* choose to use something like Bugless Beast then it's my choice. Also, such software as Blockbuster MUST be able to be uninstalled. What happens if a company goes under .. which is what it looks like will happen with Blockbuster .. will they let us uninstall this bloatware WITHOUT rooting? I and everyone else pay quite a bit for the phone and the month access charges .. I shouldn't have to have apps that I do not want. ALL apps should be available via the Android Market and it should be MY choice to install or not.

  • Mark in Vail

    What would happen if Google specifies their minimum requirements for hardware, but lets the manufacturers do what they'd like with the software, as long as it's user removable. That way, if the overlay is worth a damn, the user can keep it if they like, or, as in my case, remove my Epic's TouchWiz and replace it with Launcher Pro.
    At that point, since Google knows the hardware is capable, they can unleash 2.2, 3.0, etc... to whomever wants it, and the onus is on the manufacturers to create an overlay that we users might want to download and use.
    Ultimately what this does is force the manufacturers to differentiate themselves from another manufacturer by making a better product, which is what we're all looking for in the first place. It creates better hardware through competition, and not because we're stuck 'dancing with what brung us'.

  • K D Morgan

    Thank you so much for printing what I've been thinking for months now. I, too, am concerned about the "Apple-ization" of the Android system. The latest example of this (mis)direction is the removal of Google and installation of Bing as the only search engine on the Samsung Fascinate. Verizon especially and AT&T are doing so much to lock down smartphones that I have to ask myself whether I am renting or buying my device? Exactly what do I have to do to get the carrier's hooks out of my smartphone??? Google needs to put its foot down and stand up for the end user.

  • haz

    Its not going to happen.

    What we need most is for Google to grow a pair and demand that hardware phone makers AND carriers to stop molesting their OS. But they aren't going to do that, and if anything, I see Google taking an even more hands-off approach from here on out.

    And I for one am getting quite sick of this BS. We absolutely need a shepard in the community that will move development forward. That doesn't seem to be happening at all actually.

  • ryan

    I agree with you 100%, first of all.

    But having said that - the sad truth is that this is not going to happen. Look at the Rubin interview just recently - he stated that the manufacturers "have value to add" and that - this time not his words - you have to let them add that value (whatever the heck that is) to even get them to play ball. He responded this way when asked about manufacturer-specific UIs.

    The problem is - everyone remembers what happened in the PC wars of the mid 90s. As it turned out it was very hard to compete on anything but price for the hardware manufacturers. Their product was a commodity while the OS developer - Microsoft - reaped the reward of that revolution. The manufacturers have corporate strategy groups at the highest levels of the organization that know this very well. They don't want to end up like the IBMs, Gateways, ASUS of the last tech revolution. The want to be the Microsofts (or at least share in the profits). The carriers are the same way. They don't want to be simply the "highway maintenance crew and toll collectors" - they want to design cars too (sorry if that's a crappy analogy). So they put their bloatware on a device too. And some - notably VZ - have started their own store. Everyone's trying to get into this and to determine where the money is going to be made in smartphones without producing a commodity-type part.

    Therefore, manufacturers have developed these custom UIs. What separates a Droid Incredible from a Samsung Fascinate? Despite some minor hardware and spec differences (and I mean minor in the grand scheme of things to 98% of the population - not to people who frequent this site probably) they are basically the same device. If they both ran stock Android, would the average person be willing to pay $50 more for one or the other? Would you?

    That's why they create these custom UIs. It gives them a chance to potentially differentiate themselves from their competition, so maybe down the road they can say "I can charge you $50 more for this Samsung device because my UI is more slick than what Motorola and HTC are selling." That's a big maybe, but it gives them a corporate strategy and keeps them in the game. The boot lockers are just one tactic that they use to further this strategy.

    Having said all of that - I hate this too...but not enough to go over to the darkside with Darth Jobs. (Not yet at least)

    • http://nada BenR

      As I said earlier .. custom UI's are an issue but the biggest issue out there would be DRM chips that lock the device down completely and installed software such as Blockbuster or VZNav that CAN NOT be just uninstalled.

      Blockbuster is filing chapter 11 and by the time MY contract is up they could very well be out of business .. then I have this craptastic app on MY phone that unless I root it (which I did) and remove it that way .. I'm stuck with. I don't mind value add but I wish to choose what is valuable to ME. I have Google Maps/Nav ... I will NOT pay $9.99 for VZNav. VZN is useless when we get the same function in the OS ... unless it's just SO much better but in that case the market download by choice and the subscription to the service would be the users choice since they NEED that value added to their phone.

  • andreas

    Very nice article David.

    Obviously google is thinking of such issues for sure, maybe that's why Gingerbread is nowhere to be seen as of yet?

    However they need to keep the OS opensource, so custom overlays cannot be inhibited. Google obviously is fine with that, what they won't tolerate is playing with the search engine settings.

    Lets see what Google reaction's will be on this.

  • SirSteven

    that's bang-on. Google is naively (ok, that's not the right word; anyway...) letting Android evolve in a pure, ecosystem kinda way. But as we all know, when there are so many polluters - ie: telcos (with their bloatware & restricting features like tethering), handset makers (adding UI themes that slow updates down by months - your ecosystem is soon a muddy swamp, filled with confusion and ugly apps. That's Android right now. And that's why I'm ditching it for something that works - and looks - a lot better. I'm agnostic as to whether it's iPhone 4 or a new WP7 handset: but I'm personally writing-off Android.

  • kimberly

    Noone is ever going to be happy regardless. But what is the harm with leaving the crapware on and then be able to install whatever we want free or not. Why all the big brother, as u all know it's all about the mighty dollah.. what I want is an app to image my phone, root, and copy my settings and aapps back wih a couple clicks, if there were an app for THAT I would pay for it. Along with why don't they allow all apps to be moved to sd card. Makes no sense.

    • http://nada BenR

      @Kimberley Because I don't use Skype yet it starts up on it's own and so do other apps I don't use. I don't want bloatware using memory, storage and cpu unless I want it to .. I like having battery life past 4 - 5 hours. :)

      There is your reason why.

  • theMaginator

    No need for all this. We the consumer are ultimately in charge and manufacturers and carriers are dying for our money. If we don't like a particular manufacturer's overlay over the OS or if they made the hardware in a way that stymies optimization or rooting than all we need to do is just not buy from that manufacturer. And as their sales go down they will wonder why, and hopefully fix the issue.

    All we have to do is just not take it.

    Also there are many people that do like Sense or Twiz or the new MotoBlur. Personally I don't but I got a phone that I could root and have a ROM i like.

    Now if Samsung all of a sudden decided they were going to make it extra hard for me to root my phone by adding an eFuse or the like I won't buy from them again and I'll go to another manufacturer and carrier till I get what I want.

    If Google has to lay out more compliance rules then they already have then where does it stop.