In support of tighter Google control of Android

I have an embarrassing confession to make. You've probably seen me tweet numerous times about switching my Dad over from a Blackberry to a Droid 2 last Thanksgiving. After we walked out of the Verizon store with his new phone, I spent the next few hours setting it up for him. While I was happy Dad was no longer beholden to RIM – a company that has pretty much dropped the ball and allowed the competition to run into the end zone with it – something struck me about the Droid 2 user experience compared to my Droid 1. And it wasn't good.

The Droid 2's Blur UI is, in a word, awful. I spent the whole time I was using the phone wondering just who at Motorola actually thought this stuff was aesthetically pleasing. Although the phone was faster than my Droid 1, it didn't feel significantly so, a sentiment echoed by Engadget in their review of the handset and probably due to Blur. I'd actually gone to the Verizon store that day thinking I might update to the Droid 2 myself. By the time I was done using it, I had firmly decided to cling to my Droid 1 and wait for something else. To be fair, though, my Dad loves the phone – it's still a huge step up from anything RIM offers – and hasn't complained about it.

Later after that episode, I helped a friend chose a new T-Mobile smartphone. While at the mall kiosk, I played around with the HTC MyTouch 4G, which she wound up selecting (I recommended the G2). My reaction to that UI was even worse. Unlike my Dad, who adores his Droid 2, she hates the MyTouch.

Not quite what you might expect to hear from an Android fan, right?

Unfortunately, this problem has become malignantly cancerous among Android phone OEMs. Ever since HTC released Sense UI upon us, every other phone manufacturer has taken it upon themselves to "differentiate" (read: uglify) the Android UI on their phones with a custom skin. Motorola has Blur, Samsung has the abomination that is TouchWiz, and the list goes on and on. The problem got worse: OEMs and carriers began releasing Android phones that used non-Google search engines (e.g. Samsung Fascinate on Verizon) and disabled app sideloading/non-Market apps (e.g. all AT&T Android phones). The situation is exacerbated by the fact that these handsets are locked down, depriving users of control of their own devices.* Oh yeah, and the customizations delay OS updates too. None of this should be particularly surprising: the list of companies that are competent and competitive at both hardware and app (not OS) development is very a short one, and it's unfortunately led by a company I'd rather not mention.

Thankfully, Google is finally starting to put its foot down by making it more difficult for OEMs who want access to the latest Android version to butcher it with mostly useless changes. I suppose this is why Motorola is rumored to be developing its own mobile OS, but it doesn't take much thinking to see that route's a dead end. Just ask Nokia and RIM how well sticking to their own OSes is going. At least Nokia's had the good sense to dump Symbian. RIM's still chugging along with a smartphone platform that's relevant only to paranoid IT managers and a tablet OS that's set to ship missing basic features. Palm stuck with WebOS, which got them swallowed by HP and now barely shows up in industry analyst forecasts.

I still love Android, I just wish OEMs would implement as much of this feature list as Google allows, at the lowest cost to me. That's all. If they want to add any extra UIs or software features, they can always make them available as separate downloads.

Good move, Google.

*this is a major issue I have with the mobile "future" of computing as commonly evangelized, but that's probably for another post.

P.S.: The Businessweek article makes the point that Microsoft allows OEMs a free hand in OS modification. That's true. The difference, however, is that all PCs give their owners admin access by default, so you can easily change/remove any OEM-specific OS modifications if you want. That's not the case with smartphones, which are sold locked down with no root access.

Author: jdrch

ISTJ, Rice Owl, UF Gator, mechanical engineer. STEM, sports, music, movies, humor. Account mine only & unaffiliated.


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