December 03, 2012, 3:59 PM —
Source: laihiu on Flickr
Android needs to publish the distribution of third-party "skins"
Among the many reasons I haven't yet updated The Complete Android Guide are that I'm bad at managing my time, lazy, over-committed, and intimidated. But I don't have time to write about that today, or probably any time soon (see how I do that?). So today I'll name another major obstacle that I don't really have control over: my efforts are constantly under attack by Samsung, Motorola, Sony, and LG, and their misguided interface designers.
Google offers the core of its Android operating system for free to phone-makers and their carrier partners. If those manufacturers and carriers didn't modify the phone hardly at all, the phone interface would look like "stock Android," which Google uses on its own brand of Nexus phones and tablets. But Samsung and its competitors, working with the carriers, want to differentiate their individual phones, and they do so by adding things, as one might do with stickers on a laptop. So they add a "skin," a different interface layer, with third-party apps, unique "launchers" (where app shortcuts and widgets are kept), and their own widgets, dialers, gestures, and other modifications.
I don't think these tweaks add up to a net positive experience for Android users. More than that, they strand each owner of a skinned Android phone with a question or problem on their own, much smaller island. Samsung's own contact manager is different from Google's stock app. When you're irked at seeing triplicates of all your friends with Facebook accounts, that's a conversation you have to have with Samsung, or with a few increasingly precise Google searches. If Android 4.0 offers, for example, built-in Voice-over-IP calling, you have to hope that Samsung and your carrier port it forward into their own tested and released 4.0 update, if it arrives. And, as noted, people aiming to help you troubleshoot and improve your phone can be confounded by how different it is from what they expect.
Here's an example of how HTC's Sense skin affects the Android experience, as described in a review by The Verge of the Droid DNA, perhaps the best-reviewed phone out right now (with the possible exception of Google's own Nexus 4):