To quote what a great American once said, and by great American I mean clinically insane: “ALL YOU PEOPLE CARE ABOUT IS REDO AND MAKING MONEY OFF IT. IT’S A ROBOT! WHAT YOU DON’T REALIZE IS ANDROID IS MAKING YOU ALL THIS MONEY AND ALL YOU DO IS PUT A BUNCH OF CRAP ON TOP OF IT. LEAVE ANDROID ALONE!” Okay that’s enough crazy talk for one article, let’s move on.
Last week Google put the kibosh on the Nexus One, they’re basically selling the last batch of them. If you’re looking for an Android phone and don’t mind T-Mobile I can’t recommend the Nexus One enough. Why? Because it might be the last of its kind. You need more convincing? Read Justin’s article on why the Nexus One is still the bestest, most awesomest, Android phone.
The list of Android phones with stock Android is rapidly shrinking everyday, and it’s not a coincidence. Only the original Droid, Samsung Intercept, Samsung Moment, myTouch 3G, and G1 have vanilla Android. What do all these phones have in common? They’re all on their way out — except for the Intercept. All of them are being replaced by phones with custom skins , the myTouch 3G and G1 are making room for the myTouch Slide (Sense UI), the Droid 2 (Ninjablur?) will replace the Droid and lastly the Intercept – which has stock Android with Cupcake’s app drawer for some reason - will substitute the Moment. So basically, pretty soon your only choice will be the Samsung Intercept if you want vanilla Android. YIKES. To be clear, we’re not completely sure if the Droid 2 will launch with stock Android or Ninjablur , so there might still be hope. In the mean time, all the popular Android phone out there are running some kind of customized Android. Nonetheless, they’re all selling like hotcakes — Verizon couldn’t keep an Android phone on stock if their lives depended on it. So what’s wrong with OEMs using a custom skin? You might ask yourself, well, keep on reading.
Most custom skins suck
What first comes to mind when you think about custom versions of Android? If you said HTC’s Sense UI, you’re correct. The reason for that is that it is simply the best one out there. HTC has done a rather good job with Sense UI. You get the sense (pun so intended) that the people at HTC really took the time to understand what works and what doesn’t — and improved Android on key places. Put simply, Android is where it is today partly thanks to HTC’s work on Sense UI. And that’s about it, as far as successful custom Android stories go. It seems that when building a UX for Android, you either get it extremely right or terribly wrong. On one hand you have Sense, and on the other one you have everybody else. Stuff like TouchWiz on the Samsung Behold 2, whatever LG did to the Ally’s UI and MOTOBLUR. All of them are sure to bring a look of hellish horror to Android enthusiasts’ faces. I mean, just look at them. It’s like a bunch of kindergarteners got together and decided to draw something out of the brightest Crayola crayons they could get their hands on.
Customized versions of Android were nice on top of Cupcake and Donut. However, for Froyo and beyond, custom skins create more problems than they fix. Back in ancient times when we were proudly rocking Android 1.5 on our phones, HTC’s Sense UI was a nice improvement over vanilla Android. HTC added a lot of polish to Android’s hard-on-the-eyes stock look and feel. Sense also improved the overall experience of Android with things like pinch-to-zoom and an easier way to copy and paste. But those days are gone, with Froyo Google has now quickly closed the gap between Sense and stock Android — and it will blow right past it with Gingerbread. Basically, custom skins no longer add killer features or fill in the holes that Android once had. We have no use for them now.
Gingerbread and software updates
The obvious and most known drawback from custom skins is longer waiting periods to get software updates. Two things are undeniably true in the mobile tech world; Apple will never apologize for their mistakes and custom versions of Android will take longer to get updates. That’s just the way it is and will always be. Basically, the more you change Android, the longer it will take you to get everything working when Google releases the source code. Eight months ago, whenever anybody bought an Android phone they were making a choice — knowingly or not. Do I want a more polished version of Android or quicker software updates? Today it’s different, the more Google improves Android the more that question becomes: Do I care about quicker software updates or not? And that brings us to the next version of Android: Gingerbread.
We’re – according to rumors – about three months away from the release of Gingerbread. Gingerbread as I told you right after Google I/O will be all about the user experience. An Android UI overhaul is long overdue and Gingerbread might be the one to finally bring it to us. A truly beautiful stock Android UI will hopefully discourage OEMs and carriers from hiding it underneath a sea of rainbow-colored madness. If that works, it might fix the custom skins issue three months down the road. But what about the millions of people that buy an Android phone before then? They’re pretty much playing Russian Roulette. You might buy a vanilla Android phone like the Samsung Intercept but never get Gingerbread. Or you might get a customized Android phone, but then OEMs usually stick to the same UI when they release a software update. So you may actually get Gingerbread on your brand new Droid X but you won’t get the eye candy the stock version brings, you’ll be stuck with Ninjablur — the same goes for every other phone with custom Android.
Moreover, if Google makes some pretty deep changes with Gingerbread – like the way Notifications or multitasking works – it will be much harder for OEMs to throw their UI versions on top of it. If that happens, I’m not holding my breath on any currently being sold Android phone ever having Gingerbread. One thing’s for sure, Google’s very own baby – the Nexus One – will be the first one to get Gingerbread’s over-the-air update. If you care about getting software updates, I can’t recommend any other phone right now. If you’re buying an Android phone in the next three months you have a choice to make. Would you rather have a slightly more polished Android 2.1/2.2 or stock Android 3.0?
UPDATE: That was quick, the Nexus One is no longer available from Google’s online store. It will be missed.