Before I begin, I’m writing this completely from an HTC user perspective. I understand there are other manufacturers out there, but my experience of other brands is limited, if your experiences are different or you have anything to add from the other side of the fence, I’d love to read your comments.
“We’ve come a long way baby.”
Since the first Android phone in 2008 from HTC, we’ve seen a full spectrum of “skins” or custom User Interfaces from numerous manufacturers based on the Android OS. Ten years ago, it is what seemed like the only way to make the most of the bare bones Android and introduce new features that stock software was lacking. In 2009 HTC released the HTC Hero (my first Android phone) running brand new HTC Sense which was the metaphorical springboard to the Android experience we have everywhere today.
However, to the tech-savvy user, an Android skin is, at best, an unnecessary inconvenience. More often, it’s a clunky, not cool, faux fashion statement by manufacturers who are clearly out of touch with user expectations.
Ask any Android fanboy and you’ll usually hear two points of view: Android is better than iOS, and the closer to stock (or AOSP), the better. I’d have to agree, however, this hasn’t always been my mantra. Ever since the first Android skin appeared in the form of HTC Sense, way back in 2009, I was convinced that custom UI was the only way to really enjoy the Android mobile experience. It was something they did really well and made the Android experience easy and fun, without too much bloat.
So what do we get when we buy a device without stock Android? The traditional arguments against skins and manufacturer tweaks are abundant, here are a few:
- Skins are generally uglier than Stock Android
- They include bloatware or duplicate apps
- Your phone’s performance will suffer
- Material design is basically nonexistent
- Updates come less frequently, if at all
- The core Android experience gets confused
- Your battery life will suffer
Until the last year or two, I wouldn’t have agreed with many of these points. However watching the rapid growth of Google’s homegrown Pixel line (Successor of Nexus) and comparing them with my 9-year unbroken relationship streak with HTC and HTC sense, I’m seeing less and less evidence to convince me that manufacturer UI is the way to go. Often saying to myself “I’m so heavily invested in the Google infrastructure and software suite, do I even need HTC Sense?” — I find myself being increasingly frustrated by the twists and turns standing between me and useful features, hindering my productivity.
In a sea of manufacturers who are all fighting for market share, is there room for segregated UI experiences anymore? I’ve been an HTC user for nearly 10 years, I liked HTC sense and I’ve never considered leaving because I didn’t want to adjust my habits and learn a new UI. I was happy, but as advancements in camera software and design language progress and manufacturer software updates get left behind, not to mention the rapid downturn of HTC’s business. So I’m left here feeling lost and wondering: is it time to change the game?
… Given the choice, how would you like that presented to you? Factory unlocked stock android experience that comes at a premium. Manufacturer Custom UI with slight price also at premium price. Or Locked Carrier UI with unit price reduction.
— Darren Millar (@darrenmillar) November 2, 2018
I have no regrets in admitting I love HTC hardware but I’ve started to fall out of love with the user experience. Simple things that should just work, don’t. Software updates, although still amongst the fastest in the industry, are becoming delayed. Imagine for a minute that all software was created equal (please don’t mention iOS) and the hardware was the variable. If this was the case, users like me might become more adventurous with their hardware choices, knowing the UI was going to be the same whichever road they picked. I’d go as far as saying that I’m scared to move to another manufacturer in case I just can’t become friends with the user experience. In a world of $1000 flagships, who can really afford to be bold enough to flip-flop between brands without the peace of mind of a seamless user experience which is ultimately at the mercy of the software.
However cliché it might sound, I guess the best version of Android is what works best for you, but what do you think? Is it time to adopt a universal Android experience and let the user choose a phone based purely on design and features? I think I’m ready for that future.