Let Android Be Android, part 2


It's now been exactly a year (minus one day) since I published my very first editorial for Android Police, Let Android Be Android. A lot has changed since - dual-core CPUs are now table stakes for a high-end smartphone; Android has evolved from an exclusively mobile OS to a software powerhouse for phones and tablets alike; and we've been given several seminars on stretching the truth about the speed of a wireless network (yep, that would be the "4G" drama).

Sadly, one thing has remained almost entirely stagnant: the diminutive amount of vanilla Android devices on the market. In fact, it would be more than accurate to say that the skin situation has been exacerbated since my article on it last year. Granted, the skins have evolved alongside Google's OS; but look under their surfaces and you'll see that the alterations can only be described as skin-deep - and some custom UIs, like HTC's Sense, appear to have devolved.

Let's once again take an in-depth look at the latest in custom skin news, from the perspective of someone who just wants a good mobile phone.

The Plague That Just Won't Go Away

First, let's briefly recap the reasons behind my hate for custom skins: they're ugly, they detract from a phone's performance, and they hinder Google's ability to quickly and efficiently iterate new versions of Android. All right, I might be generalizing a wee bit, but I think those complaints could be applied to all three major custom UIs - it would be hard to argue that Sense's over-the-top modifications are still within most users' comfort zone, while Samsung's TouchWiz continues to be an iOS clone, and NinjaBlur is just too... blue. And despite the fact that Android 2.3 was released in December 2010, many smartphones - including the infamous Samsung Galaxy S models - didn't get the update until May or June of this year.

Then there's the issue of bloatware. For some reason carriers and manufacturers keep contaminating their devices with useless, badly designed pieces of crap cleverly guised as apps. Some speculate that their motivations are monetary, and while that is certainly a plausible theory, it's almost outrageous that even after raping customers' wallets by means of overpriced handsets and service plans, carriers and manufacturers feel compelled to cheat consumers out of yet more money.

Whatever the reason for its existence, bloatware sucks - it's that simple.

The most frustrating thing about it all is that almost nothing has changed since last year. Sure, Samsung, HTC, and Motorola have all spruced up their UIs, but again, upon closer inspection, you'll find that none have been improved significantly - and none provide a more satisfying user experience than stock Gingerbread.

So, what if you have no intention of leaving yourself at the whims of carriers and manufacturers? As it stands, you have only two options: buy a stock Android device (your options are currently limited to the T-Mobile exclusive LG G2x and the rapidly aging Nexus S), or root your existing handset and flash a ROM. Due to various limitations and complications, the first course of action isn't viable for most of us; and while the second may seem simple enough to us techies, it would be foolish to believe that those outside of our tightly woven circle will be willing to undertake the risk of hacking their phones.

A valid argument (and one voiced by multiple commenters on last year's post) is that most consumers really couldn't care less whether their phone runs 2.1 or 2.3 - after all, a great deal of users don't even remember their phone's name. But while this may be true on the whole, many apps require a specific version of Android - and I can assure you that when people are unable to download a game someone recommended to them as a result of their outdated OS, their reactions will not mirror this:


Image credit: I am Cash

Another common defense of fragmentation is that because Android is an open OS, Google should simply stand by and allow third parties to skin it, ship devices armed to the teeth with bloatware, and otherwise screw with the experience. However, consider that when the manufacturers/carriers have their way we usually end up with a less open end product (e.g. phones with locked bootloaders), and this justification makes less sense than Sarah Palin's historical musings.

Android can either be open for end users, or open for multi-billion dollar corporations whose sights are set on nothing but more profit. You choose.

The Android Alliance - Hope On The Horizon?

Ah, but not all hope is lost, for Google announced at its I/O conference in May that it will "soon" organize the Android Alliance - a coalition of manufacturers and carriers that vow to keep their devices reasonably up-to-date in terms of software.

Of course, it remains to be seen how exactly the Alliance will work - Google has kept mum about the topic ever since the initial unveiling - but we do know that plenty of major Android-related companies have put their names on the sign-up sheet, and that it's got oodles of potential. We (im-)patiently await further details.

Jaroslav Stekl
Jaroslav Stekl is a tech enthusiast whose favorite gadgets almost always happen to be the latest Android devices. When he's not writing for Android Police, he's probably hiking, camping, or canoeing. He is also an aspiring coffee aficionado and an avid moviegoer.

  • Aaron Gingrich

    Yo Jaroslav, I'm really glad you wrote this editorial, and Imma let you finish, but I just got to say the guy in that picture has the worst fitting suit of all time.


    • Christopher

      I agree, that suit was clearly designed for a different guy.

      Anyway, good editorial. I agree - carriers shouldn't exactly just be given the keys to the kingdom, while the customers end up getting screwed.

      However, some people really do see the value in custom UI's. While I personally prefer stock Gingerbread, I know more than a few people with HTC phones who are dead set on purchasing another HTC because they like Sense. Granted, these people aren't exactly the most technically inclined, but HTC is somewhat building brand loyalty through Sense.

      That said, I feel the users should have choice: Stock Android, or whatever UI enhancements the OEM cooked up. Choice is what defines the Android platform, and going forward, it will be what separates this mobile OS from the competition.

      For the record, I own a EVO, with CM7...and my next phone will be the Nexus Prime.

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/jaroslav-stekl/ Jaroslav Stekl

        Agreed - as many tech bloggers (myself included) have said in reviews and editorials similar to this one, carriers and manufacturers should at least provide a "turn it off" option if they are going to mess with the user experience like this.

        • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com PixelSlave

          I agreed to a certain degree. But I think ultimately, Google should share quite a portion of the blames, because they can provide a theming engine that can be turned off by the user and "convince" the handset makers to use that instead of writing a skin from scratch.

      • Mike

        I completely agree with you 100%. We should have the choice between stock Android and manufacturer UI's, because that is what Android is all about.

        I completely favor stock Android (Gingerbread) over any custom manufacturer UI's, which is why I currently own a Nexus S.

        PS: if the Nexus Prime does come to Sprint, an it is not too large (in overall size), then that's my next phone!

    • Tee

      So you complain about features like Sense and TW instead of the real custom stuff of the OPERATORS.

      As a North European, I really don't understand the way you go for the operators, who mod even the hardware...

  • anon

    Sorry, for a minute there I thought I was reading Phandroid, the home of strange, unstructured, barely coherent rants.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/jaroslav-stekl/ Jaroslav Stekl

      Feel free to elaborate.

      • anon

        * Is this about crap manufacturer UIs? Or preinstalled bloatware? Or slow updates? This piece jumps from one to another with no rhyme or reason. Seriously. First you're talking about ways of escaping bloatware, then we get "A valid argument is that most consumers really couldn't care less whether their phone runs 2.1 or 2.3" and "many apps require a specific version of Android", followed by a rant about updates. wtf does this have to do with what you were previously saying?)
        * Bloatware is annoying, but does it cheat users out of money? Really?
        * "Android can either be open for end users, or open for multi-billion dollar corporations whose sights are set on nothing but more profit. You choose." Please. This is a false dichotomy.
        * etc

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/jaroslav-stekl/ Jaroslav Stekl

          *This piece is about custom UIs, pre-installed bloatware, and slow updates. All of them are directly related to each other, and all are carrier/manufacturer customizations - which are the subject of the editorial. I transition from bloatware to counterarguments because that's what persuasive writing is all about: laying out your points, then debunking dissenters' counterpoints.
          *At what point in the piece did I say that bloatware cheats users out of money? Perhaps you misread the sentence about bloatware making money for carriers (which it does, through strategic partnerships with other companies such as Microsoft, EA, etc.). Admittedly, I can see how that could be misleading if you didn't read last year's article - I apologize for any confusion.
          *Obviously, I disagree. When carriers and manufacturers force their versions of Android on us through locked bootloaders and other proprietary software, it can hardly be argued that the end product is still 100% "open."

  • Jeremy

    I've had an EVO since day 1. I love the concept of open source. I was originally sold on Sense, then started reading blogs about how awesome "the vanilla" experience was. I went to CM7 stable, customized it, integrated the features I was missing, used apps to fill the holes and yet never felt... complete. Went to MIUI and loved it but it was still lacking... something. So now I'm back on a current gingerbread sense custom rom running a hybrid version of Sense that's just as fast feeling as CM7 or MIUI. I've had more headaches than it was worth. Fragmentation may honestly push me to iOS. I am sick of the headaches and having to put thought energy into making my phone current.

    Honestly, TW4 and Sense3.0 both have improvements over vanilla. Major improvements, IMO. The OS should be that good Vanilla. Here's hoping ICS rocks. Stock gingerbread is not attractive to me and I don't like LauncherProPlus or ADW EX. Go Launcher is pretty damn nice but Sense3/TW4 are just better.

    I don't blame the manufacturers that vanilla feels incomplete.

    • Jeremie

      I sometimes have the same thought. Basically, that I should not have to work this hard to make my phone work the way it should, or the way that I want it to. I'm sure one day I will look back in shame at the countless hours I hid in a corner scouring forums, downloading, flashing, modding... I'm getting too old for this.

      Despite all of that though, Android provides the most customzable and enjoyable user experience on the market. I can't imagine a phone without CyanogenMod on it.

    • skitchbeatz

      exactly. Vanilla isnt as good as Sense/TW. plain and simple

      • Jeremie

        I have to disagree (and I think this is the whole argument for giving people a choice), because all of my modding is to get rid of Sense and return to a closer-to-stock experience. Granted, CM7 has about a milliondy features that stock does not. (Evo/CM7)

        Let the manufacturers put their custom launchers in the market as paid apps and see how they fare. If someone wants it, they can buy it.

        • Skitchbeatz

          simplifying it down to a launcher cheapens what custom UIs actually do. I use launcher pro as my launcher myself but wouldn't find Android as good without the other features Touch Wiz brings to the table

      • Collin

        You can't please everyone... THATS why android is open and allows you to customize it..maybe your missing the whole point of the android Os

    • Mike

      Do not let fragmentation push you to iOS... Do not.

  • Mastermind26

    I believe open source is key to the article and to our phones. Does vanilla offer open? Not really, not fully.

    Open source needs to be made a standard as good as CM has become for rooted phone users.

    Are we just an "alternative" to iOS/apple?
    Or are we really trailblazing the whole concept of what a smartphone should do/be? When the vanilla version feels lagging behind iOS, it is a measurement of the work still left to champion.

    I believe CM strives to, not just make it work "right, but make it work "better". Shouldn't THAT be what Android OS should be, better (than just good)?

    Rooting is a stepping stone to get your phone's potential unchained. it is a necessity, right now.

  • tehsusenoh

    "this justification makes less sense than Sarah Palin's historical musings"


    Loved the editorial, keep them coming, no matter what the anon troll says.

  • Dobber

    Agreed, and have thought this for a while - if Sony Ericsson or LG provided users the option of running vanilla, as well as their in house skins, they could achieve a differentiation in offering that might give them a much needed pep. I would go for it, the Sony Ericsson 2.3.3 is an absolute dog and Google should fine them for proving right everything any Android naysayer ever protested about.

  • YouAreACowardWhoJustWantsToBeLiked

    Your president doesn't know how many states are in the union. Speaking of historical accuracy.

  • Bruce

    I have to say I disagree. Up to froyo, I found the vanilla experience looked too amateuristic. The menu bar and older icons all looked, to be frank, ugly and others agreed with me. Gingerbread and honeycomb are definitely improvements, but they just look and feel too dark and to me, it feels like that might intimidate non-tech users.
    And your claim that user skins are only skin deep doesn't hold much water either. HTC sense at least has added some much needed features to the core system. When the hero came out, the contacts-social network syncing was a god send, and even on a sensation, it adds a better dialler, better music app and, most importantly to me, a vastly improved keyboard. Every time I try cyanogenmod, it's always the keyboard that makes me swap back to sense.
    I will admit the slowness of updates is a pain, but the situation is vastly improved. While the hero took a year to go from 1.5 to 2.1, the desire took about four months for 2.1to 2.2. Hopefully this situation gets even better soon.

  • Vince

    Even Android at it's most horrid locked down version a la Blur, is still more open than iOS.

  • Karthik Kumar

    "none provide a more satisfying user experience than stock Gingerbread"
    That's not exactly accurate. Touchwiz 4 is vastly improved over Touchwiz 3. Yes it slows the phone down compared to stock, but the framework additions to the media player like Divx/Xvid/FLAC and Smart Dialing support rather makes up for it for a the layman user. Power users can surely got he Cyanogenmod way as I have, but then it's not everybody's cup of Tea to Root, load Custom Rom and tweak it to the hilt.

    Oh and the international Galaxy S surely got GB much before the US versions. And it's nicely being updated even now to 2.3.5.

  • RockingmyEvo3D

    I view all of this as choice which is what brought me to android in the first place. I openly decided on android March 2010 after months of research and investigation. I did not even have a cellphone in the ladder part of 2008 and all of 2009. My last device was a metro pcs phone that didn't even have a camera on the back. Flash forward to today it will always be android I will roll with just like I can say it will always be HTC I will forever support. My intense research proved to me that the same thing that makes you laugh as can make you cry. You live by sword you die by the sword the openness of android can be a major plus but that must be understood by the minuses that can also exist. This platform offers the best opportunity to learn and develop a true understanding of exactly what you are able to do with the OS as well as the applications that exist. I can't imagine having no desire to be on another platform unless android didn't exist then it would be windows for me. I support HTC and become a android supporter because of the relationship htc has with qualcomm which both openly have enhanced android emensely. I came into this game packing my Evo 4g on June 4th 2010 until June 24th 2011 which now my Evo 3d reins supreme. The vanilla android experience is truly a dull experience true htc supporters already know that. HTC has made android a recognized platform and because of that no platform will ever be better. Sense 3.0 is the best enhancement anyone can have for there device and with sense you have simplicity and elegance which will never existed with stock android. As I walk around the BIG CITY of New York I must say in today's world rather I be walking down the street, rather I be on the subway or taking a bus throughout the city whenever you see any android device you clearly see more HTC device than anything else. Base on that it's pretty clear the overall impact HTC has had on android and clearly android without HTC just wouldn't be android. Google will always need there partners especially there partnership with HTC because they are the only manufacturer that understands what is a timely update and support all of there devices rather new or old. Something all the other manufacturers can definitely learn a lesson from. This is exclusively written from my fire dragon eating EVO 3D that has 2.3.4 and awaiting some ice cream sandwich and I can tell you that htc has already been working on that build for the update for all evo 3d's to ice cream which will happen before December 25th. Yes the Prime will be released with ice cream and the Nexus S4g will get the update followed by tmobile with there Nexus S device recieving the update. Right after that the EVO 3D will be the first dualcore device with ICE CREAM SANDWICH.. Mark it on your calender the world will see even the new htc incredible hd which will launch on Verizon in October won't see ice cream till March/April 2012 you can mark that down too. Matter of fact the only device on Verizon to have Ice Cream in 2011 will be the Droid Prime all the other devices won't see ice cream till April 2012..

  • Ruperto

    I used Vanilla since the beginning but recently switched to the HTC sensation and no going back for me. Sense does a great job at filling in the blanks and I love every bit of it (minus the launcher). The email, calendar, contacts and sms Apps found in the stock version do not compare to the HTC sense counterparts. Sure I can download replacements from the market but why should I.

  • http://www.gigitsu.com GigiAUT

    When I bought my first Android handset, I went for the cheapest HTC I could find all because of Sense. And I admit, I loved it on my Wildfire but it seemed to lag a little and performance wasn't so great. I know the Wildfire is entry level, but it ran a lot better when I flashed CM6 and 7.

    Now I'm on the Desire HD and I didn't have the phone longer than an hour before MIUI was on it. I was so desperate to try out this new UI I had heard so much about that I didn't care about Sense 2.0.

    Honestly, MIUI is the best thing I've ever run on anything. I know it started off as a bit of an iOS clone, but I've been there as it's evolved into what it is today. It's stable, it's smooth, and the UI is just beautiful. This is how android should be. You should be able to switch the entire look of your setup by selecting a simple theme, just like MIUI. Lockscreens, wallpapers, icons, menus, etc.

    And then there's the updates. Every friday, without fail (except that one timem but they did manage in the end), there's a new update. And not just fixes to the ROM itself, but a complete Android update. I'm sitting on 2.3.5 right now, had it on about a week after it was released, if not sooner.

    I like CM but it's just not as pretty as MIUI. Plus I love the extra built in features like a backup app with cloud capabilities, the fancy notification bar with toggles, the theme switcher, the stock widgets that also have themes, the built in firewall...and I could go on.

    I think they could take a page out of MIUI's book. I know I look like a huge fanboy now but it really is that great.

  • Rhayader

    I'm a rooting guy, and personally I agree that the AOSP-centered experience is far better than any of the custom skins/mods that manufacturers are putting out. But I really object to statements like this:

    "Android can either be open for end users, or open for multi-billion dollar corporations whose sights are set on nothing but more profit. You choose."

    No, no, no, no. Being open means both of these things simultaneously. If Dell shipped a computer running a locked-down, skinned-up version of Linux, would that make Linux any less "open"? Of course not.

    If you don't like what manufacturers are doing, then go in a different direction by rooting, buying stock-Android devices only, etc. Vote with your wallet. Don't seek to systemically limit corporations from using open code in a way that suits them. The entire philosophy of "open" software depends on allowing corporations (and whoever else) to do whatever they wish with it.

  • Vedant Paliwal

    I completely agree with the author . I am a victim of Samsung Galaxy s late updates and totally pissed off about it .