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.