Could Android customization fall victim to Google Now?

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More so than its two largest competitors, Android has had one major trick up its proverbial sleeve: customization.

Sure, with Windows Phone 8, you can rearrange your Start page with resizable tiles, change the accent color, and choose either a white or black background color. In the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update, you can also set a Start screen wallpaper to add some spice to your live tiles and choose from some custom lock screens. And on iOS 7, your customization options are limited to roughly the same: rearranged icons and wallpapers on the home and lock screens. And if you’re one to jailbreak, you can go as far to change colors, fonts, icons, and more with springboard customizations.

Still, the customization on Windows Phone and iOS pale in comparison to the level of customization found on Android – icons, widgets, wallpapers, custom launchers, third-party keyboards, custom icons, and more – straight out of the box.

Applications like Themer, Aviate, Action Launcher, Nova Launcher, and the dozens of other third-party launchers put the look and feel of your smartphone in your hands. It’s a liberating feeling, being able to completely control the look of your phone without voiding your warranty and bending over backwards.

one-m8-home

This has been one of the major draws of Android since its induction back in 2008 – setup your phone the way you want, the way that works best for you.

It doesn’t stop there, however.

If you go as far to gain root access, you can even further customize the look of your phone, either through using a mod like the Xposed framework, or if you go a step further, you can unlock your bootloader, install a custom recovery, and flash a custom ROM to your phone, in which the sky is the limit for the possible changes made to your phone’s interface.

Over the years, I’ve narrowed my ideal Android setup down to a precise and easily replicable layout. I use DashClock Widget as my one, main widget for the primary home screen. Below that, I use a total of eight folders: Utilities, Games, Media, Social, Communications, Personal, News, and Camera. I pack those folders with all my most important apps and, for the most part, remember where everything goes. On the one page to the right, I use two widgets: Month Calendar Widget (from Roman Nurick, open-sourced, not available in Google Play) and Eye In The Sky.

This is the easiest, most efficient setup that I’ve come up with in my five years with Android. I’ve tried dozens of launchers and themes, hundreds of ROMs, and countless other customizations, and finally settled with this. It’s simple, effective, and it looks pretty nice.

But a recent rumor about some changes Google may be making to a future version of Android threatens that very setup.

Two weeks ago, Stephen wrote about a report coming out of Android Police which corroborated prior rumors, stating the Android soft navigation buttons are set to change, that the Home button will be replaced with a “Google” button on the Home screen and the Recent Apps button will change in appearance, if not functionality.

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Building on that report, a visual rendering of the alleged forthcoming version of Android was reveled, showing a new interface which will not incorporate widgets or the typical Android home screen we currently know and love. Instead, the core home experience is centered around a card-based multitask page, not terribly unlike webOS. Swiping from right to left will reveal a grid of icons, like what you see when you open your app drawer, not the customizable grid on the current home screen.

From the looks of it, the only user-definable icons are the four found in the dock below the multitasking view.

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Swiping down from the top reveals a very Google Now-esque notification shade with card-like notifications, while swiping up from the bottom still opens the same ol’ Google Now we’re familiar with.

This is a) a very drastic change to the current Android experience as we know it and b) extremely exciting. At the same time, it could be a terrible step in the wrong direction for Android. It could effectively kill much of the customization which makes Android so … useful and fun to use.

now-launcherTruthfully, this is likely just the newer incarnation of the Google Experience Launcher or something in that vein. At the very least, that’s what it looks like, rather than a total replacement of the stock Android launcher for all other versions of Android. Or maybe it’s the launcher we’ll see on the first round of Android Silver handsets.

It’s impossible to say, But the fact of the matter is, Google has been gaining more and more control over its operating system and the changes partner manufacturers are trying make; and slowly, customization seems to be taking a back seat in favor of Google, search, and ultimately ads.

That’s what it’s all about for Google anyway, right?

A small change (or big, for that matter) doesn’t exactly stop users from tweaking Android beyond belief. Third-party launchers aren’t going away, nor are custom ROMs or other heavy tweaks. But this render does raise some very important questions about the future of Android and how Google truly values the users of its mobile operating system. For instance, will it eventually prioritize ad revenue and search over customizations? Or can it maintain the major selling points of Android (customization and utility) while improving user experience and keeping its greediness at bay?

I hate how much this sounds like FUD, but Google is a business and it does some questionable things in the name of ad revenue. Will it ever sacrifice Android user experience for more potential ad revenue? When it does, how will it affect the users?

Only time will tell, but I can tell you this. As much as I love the look and idea of a new Android launcher, it would force me to completely change my Android workflow. And as it appears in renders, I wouldn’t be able to use Android the way I’ve come to love it. (Thank the Android gods for Action Launcher!)

How do you feel about the alleged new interface? Do you feel it’s time Android gets yet another face-lift? Is the potential death of widgets worrisome? Or do you welcome the possible changes without the slightest bit of skepticism?

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+