June 26th is the date. It’s when I finally decide how I’m going to spend a not so insignificant chunk of money on my next phone. That is the date the two new “Google Experience” phones become available on the play store. Last week HTC announced they would be joining Samsung in offering their flagship hardware bereft of their custom skins. Many people are calling this a big deal, and it might very well be, but the specifics of these “Google Experience” phones are leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
The Birth of Custom Skins
We’ve covered this before but as a refresher let’s go over what customs skins are and where they came from. Back in 2008 when android was first release it was simply put incomplete. In part this was by design, new open platforms should have some gaps to allow contributors the ability to innovate and customize, and in many ways it’s what has made android such an interesting platform. But honestly android was less like a cake missing frosting, and more like one missing eggs (in other words a really bad cake). To their credit Google’s hardware partners came in and devoted a ton of resources to making android something consumers would actually want to buy. Part of that involved figuring out how to fix some of the glaring omissions in the original OS. To do this, manufacturers decided to tap deeply into the way the OS worked and change the way it worked fundamentally. HTC’s Sense brought their signature flipping clock as well as a variety of visually appealing interfaces that gave those early phones polish and style. Samsung’s Touch wiz gave people an iphone-like UI that reduced the learning curve many users struggled with. This approach though was not without its utter failures. I still remember the first reviews of Motorola’s attempts to skin android, which they called blur. It was pretty much a failure from the start and each update seemed to make it worse. While some skins were better than others they all suffered from the same fundamental flaw, they each dug too deep into the OS which meant that when Google released updates to the core of the OS the manufacturers had to play catch up. This of course contributed to the infamous, though mostly overblown, fragmentation of android.
The Slow Death of the Custom Skin
Over the years manufacturers have toned down their skins, the sometimes cartoonish icons are flatter, and the modifications are a much lighter touch than they once were. Manufacturers seem to have realized creating highly customized skins with vastly different UI’s hurts the android platform. At the same time Google has slowed down their update frenzy allowing manufacturers more time to catch up to the latest OS. Manufacturers still want to differentiate with their custom skins but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the manufacturer no longer needs to dig so deeply into the OS to accomplish this. One of the most remarkable feats of the Facebook phone, the HTC first, is that although it completely changed the android experience and was very responsive, it did not need to dig deep into the OS. It essentially ran on a mid-range device on top of stock android. At this point it seems to me the only reason manufacturers dig so deep into the OS to make their skins is because they are too lazy to change their old development methods.
The Google Experience
This isn’t to say that manufacturers should never touch the OS core. There are legitimate reasons to tune and tweak the OS, which brings us to this week’s announcement. As I stated at the beginning HTC has decided to join Samsung in offering a stock android version of their flagship phone the HTC One. When I first heard the news I was pretty excited. It wasn’t a new HTC Nexus like I’ve been dreaming of, but this sounded pretty close, that is until we started hearing the details. The One has a couple of unique hardware features: boomsound with Beats™ audio, two capacitive buttons instead of the standard three, an IR blaster integrated into the power button, and of course their unique “ultrapixel” camera. To take full advantage of these hardware components the manufacturer most likely does have to dive deep into the core of the OS. Yet HTC, at least in early reports, seems to be looking to limit the support of these hardware components. The camera will work, but might not have all the enhancements available with the regular HTC One, same goes with boomsound, and the IR blaster will be disabled. In what seems like a rather squirrely statement representatives from HTC have said the limitations are because stock android doesn’t support these features natively. Well duh, you kinda invented them. I get that HTC invests a lot of time, money and effort to bring out new features and so you want to keep them proprietary but Android is open source and manufacturers are free to contribute to the code anytime they want. In fact in a most unexpected move one of the biggest contributors to the android open source project is Sony. SONY, the King of proprietary hardware. Like I said these are early reports and a lot can change between now and June 26th. I really want to want the HTC One. I want a marketplace with lots of different manufacturers competing and innovating, not just a grudge match between Samsung and Apple. I want to be wrong about the One being a disappointing piece of hardware. The clock is ticking. Prove me wrong HTC, Prove me wrong.