A consistent UI across manufacturers is more important than custom skins
In war there are a few proven strategies, one of the more famous is “divide and conquer”. The theory goes that by separating the forces of your foes you can more efficiently deal with each group on its own, slowly whittling away at your opposition. Though not nearly as tragic as war in the traditional sense, when it comes to smartphones, tablets, and mobile technology, there is most certainly a war being waged. Instead of fighting for Rights, Liberty, or to acquire land, this spoils of this war are you and I… our personal information, our pocketbooks, and ultimately, our Allegiance. The factions in this battle are Apple with its iOS, Google with its partners and Android, and Microsoft with its partners and Windows 10. There are a few other players in the theater, but few expect they’ll win – although many hope they’ll carve out strong borders in the wake of the skirmish.
Apple owns its OS and hardware, as well as the “ecosystem” – the app store and iTunes through which digital content is purchased and downloaded. Microsoft owns its OS as well as its ecosystem, but relies on partners to deploy the two on a variety of hardware. Android, on the other hand, is unique – and not necessarily in a good way.
Google originally purchased the Android operating system – it didn’t develop it from scratch. Since then, Google’s developers have pushed the capabilities of Android far past what anyone originally envisioned. Google wasn’t alone in doing so. Working side by side, virtually if not literally, Google was joined by an army of independent developers, testers, users, and even developers working for partners – and in some cases, competitors. With this odd assortment of development skills and locales, it’s amazing that anything of note got accomplished.
Yet here we are today, years later. Devices powered by Android now outnumber those powered by any other modern, mobile OS. We have Android-powered smartphones from dozens of manufacturers and OEMs across the globe. We have Android-powered tablets from 6-inches all the way up to 24-inches! We have Android on our TVs. We wear Android on our wrists. We’re even getting Android in our cars. No other modern platform can boast such a wide reach.
Even with all that depth and breadth of coverage, Android faces the age-old strategy of “divide and conquer”. Rather than partners, allies in a battle for supremacy, Android OEMs are busy “skinning” their devices with versions of Android that look progressively dissimilar from one another. HTC has Sense UI, Samsung has TouchWiz, ASUS has ZenUI, LG doesn’t have an official name for its interface, Motorola has MotoBlur, Sony has Xperia Home, and others have their own customizations. Unlike Microsoft’s partners, each who runs essentially the same version of Windows on their devices, differentiating through apps and hardware, Google’s partners are (mostly) free to to whatever they want – pushing the bounds of the OS and catering to their own niche – their own piece of the pie.
As each OEM digs in its heels, moving further away from the design language at the core of Android, each becomes emboldened, including its own apps rather than those commonly available to any person running Android. These apps are then supplemented by ecosystems of that OEMs own making. App stores crop up, book stores, movie and music services follow. Chat services aren’t uncommon. But few of these are available to users after moving from a device from one OEM to another.
Many would say this is empowering for the OEM, but it damages the consumer who would otherwise stay within the Android environment – simply switching to another OEM. From where I’m sitting, this is dividing and conquering at its absolute finest. Both Apple and Microsoft get to sit back and watch as Android “allies” work to segment themselves, driving a wedge between their devices and that of their allies.
A consistent user experience across devices made by all allies on the Android side of the battle is much more important than individual OEMs differentiating themselves by offering proprietary skins just for the sake of being “different”.