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The Android UI Dilemma: Unify or Differentiate?

[The UI of Android mobile devices is at the epicenter of a conflict between Google and the OEM struggle for differentiation. Guest author Ben Hookway analyses why Google’s UI strategy will be paramount to its proliferation as Android moves to multiple screens]

The Android UI dilemma - unify or differentiate?

The topic of User Interfaces always solicits strong views. It’s a bit like TV – everyone is an expert on it because everyone uses it. Those who have been in the mobile industry a while have seen the tide of UI control flow in and out.

In 2002 operators are demanding custom UIs from handset OEMs in the form of Vodafone Live and Orange SPV. Naturally, most OEMs resist, trying to capture consumer loyalty to the handset, not the network.

The Android UI dilemma: What should Google do?

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Three years on, and OEMs are opting to customizing Windows Mobile and Symbian powered handsets rather than creating all-out new UIs. At the same time, network operators are seeing poor returns from UI customization and are dissolving their teams.

With the iPhone big bang in 2007, the UI is back to being the hottest topic in mobile. Post iPhone, almost all tier-1 OEMs are developing their own UI layers, namely HTC Sense, Motorola Blur, Sony Ericsson Rachael, Samsung TouchWiz and LG S-Class. In parallel, network operators are building bigger teams to attempt more control over the UI again; Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile have 100+ person teams working on ‘signature’ applications and UI definition, while the trend seems to have spilled over to the other side of the Atlantic with Verizon and AT&T opening up multi-million software development centers. Behind the scenes there is also a good deal of demand for UI technology and expertise such as TAT’s Cascades and Mentor’s Inflexion products.

The latest development in the UI saga is the rumoured tighter control being exerted by Google on the Gingerbread release of Android. The aim of this appears to be to reduce API fragmentation issues caused by custom OEM UIs and deliver a more consistent UI brand across different manufacturer devices.

This is not going to go down well with Google’s partners. There is a core commercial conflict on how Google wants to take Android forward. Google wants an Apple-like level of control over the device appearance with their Android handset compliance definition encompassing hardware features, software performance, and service bundling (see the recently published CTS and CDD documents).

However the Apple and Google business models could not be more different.

–       Apple controls the semiconductor, hardware, and software make-up of the iPhone all the way to ad services, branding and retail pricing, whereas Google only controls the software.

–       Apple makes its own devices (at a rate of 1 new model per year), whereas Google relies on partner OEMs to produce 100s of new models per year.

–       Apple spends big advertising dollars in communicating a consistent brand experience across products, while Google co-markets its Experience handsets but puts no money (or effort) in partner handsets.

Most importantly, unlike Apple, Google relies on OEM partners to bring these devices to market.

In the OEM world of survival of the fittest and thinning margins, there are two differentiating factors: price and UI. Yet, both of these factors are being constrained; price is continually declining (standing at 100 GBP unsubsidized for Android handsets) thanks to ODMs willing to sacrifice margins; and the UI is apparently being locked down by Google in the Gingerbread release.

The economic model of handset OEMs necessitates UI differentiation and Google is taking that away. For Google to expect Apple-like control on a fundamentally different business model is just unrealistic.

And it’s only getting worse.

Battling across 4 screens
The next battle (if we are not already in it) is going to be about platforms for your whole life – not just your mobile, TV, PC in isolation, but as one joined-up world; Experience Ecosystems made up of multiple screens where experience can easily roam from one screen to the next.

Browsers are already bridging the gap across laptops, phones, tablets TVs and cars, while the ‘app’ paradigm is taking this further.

To have mobile, TV and PC seamlessly join up requires consistency of the user experience. Apple is the obvious role model here. The Mac, iPhone, iPad, all use similar gestures and interactions, come with similar application design guidelines and are connected to the same centralized service cloud of iTunes and MobileMe. Apple is again the role model in creating the first Experience Ecosystem.

In the Android camp, Google recently announced Google TV. A consistent user experience across mobile and TV is going to be not just important but paramount. Don’t be surprised to see mobile handset OEMs to extend use of Android to other consumer electronics from picture frames and DECT phones to set-top boxes and hi-fis.

But how is Google going to achieve this consistency without an Apple-like hardware control? Hardware control gives you complete user experience consistency in terms of UI responsiveness, screen quality and more. In the next release of Android (Gingerbread) the UI is apparently going to be more locked down; an attempt by Google to gain more control without resorting to hardware manufacturing.

Imagine browsing content on your BrandX Android based tablet and then synching it to your BrandX TV set for viewing over the air. Consistency of experience between the 2 devices will be key. The web browser provides this consistency of interaction and is the best lowest-common denominator right now. But the app phenomenon is outperforming the web by leveraging on location, micropayments, personal user information and intuitve discovery. As one of the main engines behind the app phenomenon, Android could well be powering the battle of the smart living room.

The industry tension over the UI customization of Android is not going to go away anytime soon – rather its going to amplify as more and more manufacturers leverage Android in creating smart, connected and differentiated consumer electronics devices.

OEMs need to plan for their differentiated UI to span multiple devices. Having a familiar experience across devices can be a key driver of brand loyalty and is strategically important to each OEM in creating their own Experience Ecosystem. Competitive pressures make this a key pillar of differentiation that cannot be wasted. It cannot be done half-heartedly. There need to be clear benefits to consumers and clear continuity across as many devices as possible. But the benefits of the larger Android community also need to be maintained, for example having unrestricted access to the Android Market and consistent consumer marketing as to the differentiation offered by the OS itself.

Google needs to accept that UI differentiation is a strategic requirement for its partners, offer alternative differentiation strategies or fundamentally change how it brings Android to market.

Question is, does Google see this as a challenge to the proliferation of Android, and if so, what will they do about it?

– Ben

[Ben Hookway is the CEO of Vidiactive, a company bringing web video to TV, using an open and multi-device approach. He consults on user experience technology and trends, having been founder and CEO of Next Device, which was acquired by Mentor Graphics. Get in touch with Ben: ben.hookway (at) vidiactive.com]

  • Pico

    Handset OEMs put too much emphasis on the custom UI.

    It can even be detrimental!

    For example, as I write this, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 handset runs Android version 1.6. It is about a year behind the times, and the customers know it. Sony Ericsson's custom UI ends up deterring sales, because it causes delays to OS updates.

    Customers want the latest and greatest version of Android more than they want the OEM's custom UI.

  • Google just has to come out with a good UI that can scale across platforms well in terms of resolutions, responsiveness and interface types (touch, remote, gesture and keys).

    Once it does that, the rest will follow – vendors will still tweak the UIs striving for differentiation. It will happen a lot more in areas where Google isn't in full control (i.e – not smartphones and probably not Google TVs).

  • Reading this article reminds of the recent Anssi Vanjoki quote of Android being like the little Finnish boy who pees on himself to stay warm. Sure it's warm now, but it's going to get icy later.

    On a more constructive note, who should Google be closer with in the push to avoid fragmentation? The handset manufacturers or the operators? It seems to be that handset production is getting more and more commoditized with wannabe manufacturers ready to fill every void. However, it's hard to copy an operator. So from a long-term perspective, is it better to partner with the operators around these UI issues?

  • There should be an agreement put in place between Google and handset OEMs dividing UI domains on mobile device. My advice to Google is to leave overall UX experience and home screen UI to handset OEMs responsibility and focus on maintaining consistent browser and WRT UIs.

  • Bob


    so all those OEMs using symbian OS are peeing in their pants right ?

  • Tom

    Since when does

    "The economic model of handset OEMs necessitate[s] UI differentiation"

    where the implying differentiation is UI changes? How about the OEM just making the best darn phone out there? (See how the Samsung Focus seems to be a decent favorite for WP7 phones, through being better, even though locked into minimum specs, handset designs etc (it's weakness in part the issue of SD cards, and that 8GB level).

    How about they just make a decent handset that is better than the others? Logo on the back.

    Are the carriers and OEMs so inept as to not understand the frustration, and negative issues about them meddling in negative ways with the stock Android OSs?

    Carriers can't handle not being involved – they want to brand stamp the handset, and do the OEMs. Why not do that by association with a handset that's superior, rather than messed with?

  • Frankly, even with the same UI and and the same price between all different Android phones, I would still have a staggering amount of choice.

    A lot of the time, I would be hesitant to buy one simply because I'm sure it's rickety or low-quality. Very few phones (or UMPCs) have good build quality, or differentiating hardware.

    I'd say the defining aspect of the iPhone was the hardware. The large touch-screen revolutionized how phones would look in the coming years.

    All OEMs can very well build amazing hardware for their phones, but they don't.

  • Dung Deets

    OK that makes a lot of sense dude. WOw.

    <a href="http://www.web-privacy.edu.tc” target=”_blank”>www.web-privacy.edu.tc

  • I think the UI differentiation is something handset OEM have felt they needed, but hopefully, there must be some deep analytics of consumer satisfaction pointing towards the fact that UI differentiation is not actually needed and that sales occur mostly on different levels which consumers consider probably on following priority:

    1. Price

    2. Availability

    3. Features

    4. Hardware Design

    5. Software Design

    Thus the sales channels, the offer and subscription pricing, and the hardware features are more important factor in consumers choosing one brand over another than Software Design elements, which I actually think are the lowest priority for consumers when choosing which new smart phone to buy.

    In any ways, I think Android should remain open, let OEM customize whatever they want, as long as there is a Vanilla Home Replacement available for free in the Google Marketplace, all users should easily be able to remove the custom UI on any Gingerbread phone and "reset" it exactly to the default Android UI designs.

  • Michael Vakulenko

    OEMs may aspire to differentiate at the UI level, but with the exception of HTC, they did terrible job in doing so. OEMs just don't have the right resources and skills to innovate at the user experience level.

    Why Google's should help OEMs polluting and fragment the platform with their unsuccessful differentiation attempts?

    Most OEMs should come to terms with their role and focus on their core expertize of building attractive and reliable hardware. Yes, this smells like PC-style commoditization, but this is where the industry is driven by Google and Microsoft.

  • Spade

    After all the loud crowing Google has done about Android being "open" and customizable, they'd have a pretty difficult time changing their tune.

    Unless the OEMs and/or carriers beg them to do otherwise, though given recent history (Microsoft's tyrannical hold over PC OEMs) it's doubtful they'd be willing to give Google that kind of power.

    Of course, there's already the Google vs. Skyhook situation, which shows that Google is (allegedly) willing to be less "open" with Android depending on the situation. I suppose it depends on whether or not they can spin any decision to make Android less "open" as being "for the greater good", and whether or not their business partners (and defenders) will be willing to go along with that.

  • r00fis

    The handset designers are hamstrung.

    What Apple (as a combined HW/OS vendor) delivers is *design*. This includes the hardware, fit and finish, operating system, and UI guidelines and App Store (for all it's faults it's still a paradigm shift and exists on all iOS devices).

    “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” -Steve Jobs

    So it's not about the UI itself, but how the software (Apps) interact using UI guidelines and framework (OS) to manipulate the device (HW) all integrated together to provide an experience that combines form and function.

    Device manufacturers using Android can't modify the OS significantly, so are stuck differentiating themselves via UI and hardware, with the middle completely out of their control. They can only provide features.

    Unless Apple does completely nothing for a year or more, I won't expect any Android device to match the complete design of any iProduct.

  • Andreas Rogers

    I'm no longer convinced that the PC model of the 80s and 90s is the winning combination in smartphones. I think Android is a dead-end.

    Windows had a huge advantage in the last 3 decades by being available on a wide variety of hardware, but the key there was that Microsoft maintained control over their OS. You didn't see alterations or customizations being done by the PC makers so you were able to get a unified experience across all types of hardware and MS could make a reasonable effort to keep things going.

    That's the drawback to an operating system being open. It's going to proliferate in many different versions and variants. Look at server and desktop Linux, for example. It's a great OS but you have to re-learn the eccentricities and methods of each version and, even for geeks, that's a pain in the ass. I think that approach has already caused Android to be needlessly complex and is causing a promising platform to stagnate.

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    > I’m no longer convinced that the PC model of the 80s

    > and 90s is the winning combination in smartphones.

    > I think Android is a dead-end.

    The iPod model of the 2000's is the winning combination in smartphones. iPods and smartphones have everything in common: about $200, pocketable, battery-powered, consumer user, no I-T support, audio video, headphones. A PC from the 80's or 90's is none of those things.

    Android is not using the Microsoft PC model, it is using the Microsoft PlaysForSure model.

    Why you would go looking in a different century for a successful smartphone model is suspicious in the first place.

  • Oluseyi

    > Android is not using the Microsoft PC model, it is using the Microsoft PlaysForSure model.

    And we all remember what a rousing success that was when Microsoft turned on its partners – by which I mean colossal failure. Not a good sign for Android-using OEMs. But you're absolutely spot-on: Android isn't using the Windows model, it's using the PlaysForSure model!

  • It seems that one of your thesis is that the UI must remain consistent across platforms/devices. But is that really the case? I would think maintaining a high level of usability across platforms would be the most important. Generally this would mean having different UI designs to take advantage of the usage patterns associated with those platforms (e.g. TV, tablet, phone). Google and Apple TV don't sport UIs similar to their mobile counterparts but are rather designed for the lean-back experience.

    Also, would you say that the OS or the applications have more responsibility in maintaining UI consistency? I mean, for all the different UI skins applied to Android, the applications themselves are unchanged with few exceptions.

  • Ben Hookway

    Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

    As stated in the opening paragraph, UI solicits lots of opinions!

    Lots of discussion on whether the UI should be customised and whether OEMs need to customise in order to differentiate.

    On the need question; differentiation is key to any product success so I see the OEMs continuing to try and do this with the UI – rightly or wrongly. As Charbox points out there are other key factors in driving sales. Where the UI sits in this matrix I think varies from OEM to OEM and whether the purchase is a first or second Android phone to the consumer.

    It's clear that some people feel that the UI differentiation detracts value from the base platform, rather than adds to it and this has to be addressed. Differentiation ought to add value to the consumer.

    Jeff: When I talk about the useability across platforms I mean that the experience has to be similar, but not identical, as you imply in your comment. User experience has to change to fit form factors, environment, and as importantly, whether the device is used as a personal or shared experience.

    Its going to be interesting to see how the OEMs compete with each other on Windows 7 devices. With UI removed from the differentiation mix, where will they focus their efforts?

  • Bani

    Google should allow OEM's to put up their own UI if that is what they wish to do. But they should not be allowed to delete the google UI. Shouldn't be too hard to have a choice ala dual boot with both UI's available to the customer.

  • Walt French

    @Ben, thanks for setting the tone for such a great thread.

    The economics around this are indeed important — actually, much broader than just the notion of Android as a commodity. What we're seeing is who has the economic power in the wireless space.

    At least in the US, power is almost 100% with the carriers. Their logo gets primary placement. They actually buy most of the phones from the manufacturers, and it is they who spec the hardware & software features. They take the ultimate commodity (radio spectrum in any geo area) and lock it up for their brand. The top two carriers have a commanding share, making it inefficient and expensive for smaller competitors to enter markets — they would have to overbuy spectrum rights before they had customers — so even #4 Sprint has to have extensive “at your mercy” roaming deals with Verizon.

    While Apple blew up the cozy arrangement for its own benefit — really, is there a better example anywhere, anytime of such a wildly successful, total assault of a market? — Android comes in as the tool for carriers to put down the insurrection that took control of hardware, software and billable goodies (e.g., Verizon's charges to email a photo). Now that Android has stabilized carriers' role in the smartphone game, they are busy locking down the handsets with their own bloatware, hardware features that prohibit sidegrades or user-installable OS distros, unfettered tethering, etc. And "Droid," a Verizon trademark, is bigger with the public than "Android."

    Truth is, the OEMs here AREN'T adding much value. Samsung screens are available to all. ARM CPUs come in dozens of variants that offer any given OEM zero edge with users. Battery technology, radio chips, etc.: all depend on high volume, multi-OEM purchases to be economical. The carriers seem to have used the OEMs to support hiding the generic Android look, but they will take over that, too, with the predicted effects: note how unlocked Dell handsets are Froyo 2.2, while those sold locked to carriers don't have it, many months after its release.

    Google appears utterly uninterested in the handset makers, choosing Samsung for the latest Nexus, HTC for the first. And why should they? If Moto or SE or even LG drop off the earth, another will step up. They, too, are stepping up their sphere of influence and the OEMs are not powerful enough to be allies.

    With the OEMs unable to differentiate, they will have no opportunity to have more than a barefoot and pregnant subsistence. Branding will be useless because it will mean nothing about what to expect. (Handset quality MIGHT matter, but it is generally quite good and also undifferentiated, in part because manufacturing is ALSO contracted to third parties.)

    So anonymity is the symptom, not the cause of the OEMs' plight.


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