While reviewing the Lenovo Vibe Z, the first thing I was struck by how it didn’t quite feel like Android. For starters, there was the missing app drawer—the menu of all your apps. Instead, the Vibe Z only has a homescreen with an endless flow of apps, much like the iPhone.
The next thing to catch me by surprise was that all apps had rounded corners at the top, which was jarring under the flat, straight-lined notification bar. And then there were the custom apps, like Lenovo’s Messaging app, which have their own design style, separate from Android’s recommended Holo theme.
Several other manufacturers have customized how Android looks on their devices, including Samsung, LG and HTC. A few stick to the default Android design as much as possible, like Micromax and Motorola. Before v4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the operating system lacked several core features that these custom interfaces delivered. The question now is whether Android in its current form still needs these custom UIs.
A Need For Consistency
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If you look at a Nexus phone and all the apps installed on it, and compare it to a Samsung or LG phone and its apps, you will notice that the Nexus feels more like a cohesive unit when you’re switching between apps. Most new apps follow the Holo design guidelines laid down by Google to deliver a certain uniformity to the Android experience. Unfortunately, the custom UIs by manufacturers only go to ruin this uniformity.
You see, the beauty of Android is in the large number of apps it offers on the Play Store. That’s what makes it a great OS, not its core features. And if you are going to be installing all those apps, you should have a consistent experience across all of them; it shouldn’t be that you press at the top-left corner to go back in one and press at the bottom-right to go back in another.
In its progress, Android has borrowed heavily from some of the custom UIs to get to where it is today. But I’d argue that it’s now at a point where it would be better for the manufacturers to deliver an overall consistent experience than to distinguish themselves through design. Because ultimately, design deviations lead to jarring changes when using many apps.
The Cost Of Updates
Another benefit of keeping the design and functionality as close to the original Android version as possible is that manufacturers are able to roll out updates that much quicker. Apart from the Nexus series, a prime example of this is the Indian manufacturer WickedLeak, which has consistently been the first non-Nexus device to update to the latest version of Android. WickedLeak’s phones have a plain vanilla version of Android, and they update their phone months before other manufacturers do.
The Case For Customizations
That said, there are still some customizations that add features which Android could benefit from. Take, for example, Samsung’s Air Command on the new Note series. On the Moto X, Motorola has done some fantastic work with the Active Display and Touchless Control.
By delivering a core function that can’t be easily replicated with a third-party app, these mobiles are able to distinguish themselves in a far better way than a custom design can. In fact, there are enough people willing to pay purely for those functions.
But the key takeaway here is that it’s the function that sets these apart, not the form. Android can still use “features” that add more than the default experience, but perhaps it’s time manufacturers moved on from changing the design alone and adding functions that are available as third-party apps.