Editorial: Stop Hating On Android Overlays, They Keep Android Breathing

Wherever you go in tech industry space, you see people hating on manufacturer overlays for Android. Whether it’s HTC’s Sense UI, Samsung’s TouchWiz, or Motorola Application Platform (MAP), they all get a lot of hate from tech bloggers and Android fans alike. It seems that everyone with enough knowledge to root (and that’s very little these days) hops on the bandwagon that AOSP code has reached god-like status and overlays are blasphemy. However, most people don’t realize those overlays are what is keeping Android alive and on top of the competition. Quite literally, overlays have saved Android from failing as a mobile platform.

Let’s go back to the original HTC Dream, better known as the T-Mobile G1 in the United States. It was a hacker’s dream (I swear that wasn’t on purpose). It was a phone with unlimited possibilities. Yet, kept stock, it was a pretty terrible phone for most consumers. It was missing features, it wasn’t fully stable, and it just wasn’t up to par with the iPhone. The iPhone 3G was the pinnacle of an easy to use phone that just (mostly) worked for its time. The G1 was quite the opposite, and served its niche purpose in the hacker market. If Google kept going like that, they’d have lost the smartphone battle before the Nexus One was even launched. So who made Android a decent consumer OS? HTC.

The HTC Hero was a magical device of its time. I liked the G1, but considered both physical and software design quite ugly. The GSM Hero was the first Android phone to ever catch my attention. To me, Sense seemed gorgeous. It added a ton of features everyone wanted in Android. It made Android usable. Yes, it wasn’t too stable, but to an average consumer, it could very well be a usable daily phone. Android could finally be a general person’s iPhone replacement. And it STILL offered all the customization you could ever ask for, with a massive developer community. I longed for that phone, but I was stuck in a contract with my (much loved) iPhone 3G. The Hero made me realize that Android was a viable contender to the iPhone.

Android improved, ever so slowly, from 1.5 to 1.6 to a big jump, 2.0. But even 2.2 didn’t bring too much to the game; it was still the same old experience. 2.3 was the first version to bring a big UI overhaul, with significant fluidity tweaks and a user experience you could brag about. I had a Samsung Galaxy S at the time, and I was one of the very few people who truly liked the TouchWiz 3 overlay. Yes, it was too colorful, and yes, replacing the RFS file system with EXT4 was crucial, but it was good software. Especially with the Froyo update, it added a lot of cool features, I still didn’t much like AOSP, but running CM7 with a ton of customization and app replacements really worked for me. Once again, Android’s openness came to the rescue. I missed TouchWiz though, and eventually came back.

Same thing happened with my Galaxy SII, but a lot faster. TouchWiz 4 offered a lot more than just new features, it was fully hardware accelerated. And not just that, Samsung did a helluva better job than Google did hardware accelerating the Galaxy Nexus. Aside from the One X and the Galaxy SIII, the Exynos-based SII still remains the smoothest Android phone ever made. I ran AOKP a few times, but I always ended up going back to TouchWiz. Even now, I run TouchWiz 4 on top of Ice Cream Sandwich, and adore it. Don’t get me wrong, Google did an amazing job with AOSP ICS. It’s truly beautiful and functional. I just appreciate Samsung’s additions, including a smoother experience. But Ice Cream Sandwich would be nothing like it is now if it weren’t for manufacturer overlays.

Do you ever wonder where the incredible push forward known as Ice Cream Sandwich came from? Thank the manufacturer overlays. Most of the “new” features in ICS came from previous versions of TouchWiz, Sense, and MAP. Look at the camera app from Gingerbread: it was terrible to an indescribable degree. And the ICS one is quite nice. Touch to focus was added, deleting individual notifications, along with a ton of new features. Most of those have been in carrier overlays for years. I had touch to focus and all manual settings on my Galaxy S running Android 2.1, and even then it had more features than the ICS camera app. All Motorola phones could remove individual notifications for over a year.

And that’s only a fraction of what overlays have done. This is what they’ve done for Google’s own OS, and AOSP code. But furthering Android as a platform wouldn’t be a big deal if Android would have just died out early on. The appeal of Android has always been variety and choice. There all sorts of different hardware arrangements and unique phones you can’t find on any other platform. But all I hear from Android fanboys is “I hate *insert manufacturer here* because their newest phone doesn’t run AOSP code! Their overlays only hurt Android!” No, they have kept Android alive and they have only furthered the very purpose of Android itself. There would be very little variety if it weren’t for overlays. Imagine if all Android phones ran AOSP. All the phone software would look identical. The only choice left would be hardware. And all custom hardware would be gone. Do you like your Galaxy Note’s S Pen? It’s gone. How about HTC One’s ImageSense? Nope. Kyocera Echo’s dual screen setup? Ok that’s a bad example, but my point stands. If all phones had AOSP code, then Android would have the variety of Windows Phone: all the phones would be nearly identical. And look how well that’s working for Windows Phone.

Those overlays give variety to people, so everyone doesn’t have the same phone. They give incentive to stay with one manufacturer. They create brand loyalty, and that’s really all manufacturers need to keep making great phones for us. The general consumer often needs these overlays, there’s no doubt about that.

However, with Android comes a different kind of choice. And that’s a hacker’s choice. Let’s use Samsung as an example in this case. Their phones are completely open to hacking. They even sent the Galaxy S CyanogenMod team a free Galaxy SII to get started on getting it working. Only a few weeks after Samsung dropped Ice Cream Sandwich source code for the Galaxy SII, AOKP was fully working with nary a device-specific bug to be found. People can easily flash AOKP with essentially no risk of bricking, as the Galaxy SII is unbrickable unless you (foolishly) screw up flashing bootloaders (which is never necessary anyway). You have the choice between TouchWiz and AOSP, and Samsung made sure of that. That is the beauty of Android, and that’s how Android should always be. Unfortunately, we know this is not the case.

Motorola ships all their phones with their MAP overlay. Don’t want MAP? Too bad, Motorola has locked your phones bootloader. Essentially, you’re stuck. All of Android’s choice is negated by a manufacturer decision. In this case, don’t hate on the overlay, hate on Motorola for forcing it down your throat. My girlfriend loves the MAP widgets and apps, and after a great conversation about Ice Cream Sandwich and her DROID 3 not receiving it, she decided she’d rather have Gingerbread with MAP than AOSP ICS. While I am not a big fan of MAP, her decision is nothing but logical (from a consumer point of view, she isn’t an Android tinkerer).

Manufacturer overlays have done nothing but good for Android, yet all the fanboys and the purists hate on them. Here is a good observation: In the AT&T Galaxy SII XDA forums, there are both TouchWiz ROM threads and AOSP ROM threads. In the AOSP threads, people are vicious. If some new guy asks a stupid question, even if it is an understandable one, a ton of people flame him immediately. This happens in both AOKP and CM9 threads, basically all AOSP based threads. In every TouchWiz ROM thread I visit (I frequent them, as that is my preference in ROM), when people ask even the stupidest questions already answered on the first page, people respond and nicely tell them to search and read more and check the first post. There are occasional flames for the biggest of idiots, but the whole thread is just filled with kind and understanding people. In the AOKP thread, every person who asked how to take a screenshot was flamed badly. In my favorite ROM thread, every time someone asked, it was answered followed by “*shot*” because we decided to play a fake drinking game every time someone asked. A ton of people joined in, lightheartedly laughing at people who don’t read the thread.

This example shouldn’t define a group of people: some of my favorite devs and friends are AOSP lovers and they are extremely nice on XDA. But a lot of people hate overlays unnecessarily, and that is a purely illogical hate. Everyone is allowed to dislike the actual software, and that’s completely fair. I dislike Sense 3.0 and 3.5 a LOT, and I have quite a few issues with MAP. But I appreciate them nonetheless, and am extremely thankful they exist. And so should everyone else. For those who wish they didn’t exist: neither would your precious Android OS if it weren’t for them. So learn to appreciate them, even if you don’t want to tolerate them on your phone. Buy a Samsung. Don’t like TouchWiz? Flash AOKP while technically keeping your warranty. (Note: Neither we nor anyone else are responsible for any damages caused by rooting and flashing, nor we do not endorse such actions. They are brought up only for the sake of providing options). Buy a Motorola product, and you’re stuck thanks to their terrible bootloader policy. Buy an HTC, and you’re stuck in the middle. They unlock bootloaders only partially, and you’ll have to wait for an unofficial and possibly dangerous S-OFF method. But that’s the choice of Android. I’ve made mine, and anyone is free to make theirs. Just appreciate what has given Android a fighting chance and has brought it this far: manufacturer overlays. Keep this in mind next time you see someone flame them. So what do you think of manufacturer overlays? Do you like them? Hate them? Either way, tell us what you think!

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